Rick Berman (not the dick who runs Star Trek, but the lobbyist) for The Daily Caller explores the semantic choices of the high-fructose corn syrup lobby, which has sought to change public perception of their sweetener. The lobby has petitioned the F.D.A. to allow their sweetener to be called “corn sugar” as opposed to “high-fructose corn syrup.” Berman considers this name an improvement, since the amount of fructose (what makes sugar sweet) is roughly the same as in refined cane and beet sugar. In addition, listing it in plain English as “sugar” clearly tells consumers what they are consuming. He notes the common view that anything sounding too industrial or scientific tends to scare people. He also explores the semantics of advertising and their word choices, concluding, “Americans want to know what is in their food, not which squares on the Periodic Table it occupies.”
In recent years, many have demonized high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar itself, in one form or another, has been a key scapegoat for America’s obesity debacle for even longer. The connotations attending to each product have shifted. In the 1980s, soft drink corporations replaced cane sugar with corn sweetener. They did so mainly because of high import tariffs and other government supports for the U.S. sugar industry (Yes, your tax-dollars support that foul miasma wafting over campus from Bay City’s sugar refinery.), which drove the price of imported sugarcane to artificially high prices. Domestic corn syrup, as a result, became the cheaper, domestic alternative.
Economics aside, the switch made advertising sense too. When the switch came, many—especially children—did not know what high-fructose corn syrup was nor cared to find out, because it is a mouthful to say and looks arcane enough to ignore. It made good marketing sense, then, to replace the word “sugar” with a word that looked like gobbledygook, because it replaced a word commonly associated with obesity with a word that had no negative connotation in the minds of consumers.
Twenty-five years later, the connotations have reversed. Enough talking heads and celebrity chefs have lambasted high-fructose corn syrup such that the word “sugar” seems healthier by comparison. The products have not changed, but the lobby intends to change its perceived health benefits. People associate sugar with greater health benefits—or at least, greater than those of high-fructose corn syrup—which, as Berman points out, was coined such because it had a greater amount of fructose than regular corn syrup, and not because it had more fructose than table sugar. While Berman maintains this switch of terms to be beneficial, “corn sugar” being a more to the point and accurate name, there is always an economic reason for these changes. This is an effort to change their product’s image, and like water, advertising tends to seek the lowest level. If one is stupid enough to believe high fructose corn syrup is bad because it sounds scientific, s(he) will be stupid enough to think cane sugar will be better for them. Only in advertising can the truth still seem like a lie.
Switching the names signals a greater trend. If the ingredient’s name reads as if scientists coined it, it must be bad, whereas, if it is natural, it must be okay. Still these assumptions break down under scrutiny. For instance, compare the processed xanthan gum with natural hemlock. Humans process kelp to make xanthan gum, yet it remains innocuous, but natural hemlock is a deadly poison. American Spirit cigarettes claim they are all natural, but they will kill just the same as cigarettes with additives. So too have words like “preservatives” and “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” become insidious, mainly because the name—often Latinate—implies, or lists outright, a scientific process. In the past, advertisers have listed these processes to distract the consumer from the basic contents of their food, even though chemically speaking, a preservative is just a salt and partially hydrogenated soybean oil is simply a fat. However, if the label lists the main ingredients as “salt” and “fat,” those products would be harder to sell.
If advertisers could convince the world that the sky is purple, they would surely try. It is disheartening that many in America gather a great amount of “truth” from advertising. Consider the Tiger Woods scandal. Why was it so scandalous? Charlie Sheen had just stabbed his girlfriend, but the media gave it scant attention in their scramble to uncover Woods’ many sins. Since Woods became pro, companies have pitched him as a mentor, a good citizen and a paradigm of racial progress. Years later when the scandal broke, the American public felt let down, somehow. Tiger Woods no longer commanded such admiration. Charlie Sheen had no such image to shatter, and in fact, he had the opposite reputation as a bad-boy with a record; so naturally, nobody was entranced with the scandal of his serious crime. They expected it.
The truth about Woods is obvious in hindsight. He plays golf constantly, and when he does not, companies use him incessantly to sell cars, golf balls, and clothing lines. All real evidence would suggest that he is too busy to devote adequate time to his family. Still many were deceived, because advertising has stamped this mentor image—and by extension, the image of a good father and husband—so indelibly into their minds. This deception not only illustrates the power of advertising to make one needy, but also its power to shape a person’s image. When that image shatters, however, we should not be so surprised.
Now, sugar has a good image—or at least not as bad. Even though the scientists at the American Dietetic and the American Medical Associations agree that cane sugar and corn sweetener are essentially the same, advertising still maintains a myth through the connotations of language. For a little while, the American public may believe corn sugar will help them with their obesity. However, whether a name seems natural or unnatural rarely denotes whether a product is processed or safe. Milk is regarded as natural, except for pasteurizing and homogenizing. Moreover, if you have smelled that sickly-sweet scent drifting from the Bay City sugar refinery, you might have guessed sugar cubes don’t grow in grandma’s garden.