FoodPolitik: Sugar semantics and the FDA

If you ask Americans what they think about all the sodium chloride and folic acid in their diets, they’ll probably look at you funny. Tell them these are just scientific names for salt and a B-vitamin, and your audience will crack a knowing grin.

The semantics of naming is important. Whoever coined the “Employee Free Choice Act”, for instance, was a genius, because its name means the opposite of what it proposes to do. My golf bag has a “Heavy Putter” in it — the “Lite-Weight” model. My neighbor drives a Dodge Ram. You get the idea.

The food we eat is full of contradictory names too. I love jumbo shrimp, for example. I still haven’t figured out what vegetarian meatballs are made of. And I’m pretty sure there’s actually no such thing as boneless ribs.

Then there’s high-fructose corn syrup, so-called for decades because it contains more fructose than “ordinary” corn syrup — not because it’s much higher in fructose than table sugar. (In fact, they have nearly the same amount.) It surprised practically no one last week when the high fructose corn syrup lobby petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to let them call their product “corn sugar” instead.

“Corn sugar” is an improvement. It’s accurate, it won’t confuse anyone, and it has the virtue of telling shoppers that, yes, they’re consuming sugar. This matters because the sweetener is practically everywhere. You’ll find it in juice drinks, bread, soda, condiments, and the Huffington Post.

True enough. High fructose corn syrup (I mean “corn sugar”) has become a culinary punching bag for food activists and celebrity chefs who think it represents everything wrong with American food. They blame it for rising obesity rates. They imagine it lurking, assassin-like, in the shadows of the golden arches.

Like many food myths that panic us, there’s no truth behind high fructose corn syrup scaremongering. It’s nutritionally no different from processed cane or beet sugar. (So sayeth the American Dietetic Association.) It’s not a unique contributor to weight gain. (The American Medical Association agrees.) It also won’t give you a third eyeball.

But high fructose corn syrup still has a six-syllable name with an industrial feel to it. And consumers have a distaste for scientific-sounding ingredients. This has food marketers rushing to take competitive advantage of the nonsensical idea that “sugar” (just two syllables!) is somehow more wholesome and natural. (For a peek at the chemical processes that create table sugar, visit www.SweetScam.com.)

Nevertheless, Starbucks has switched. Soft drink companies have floated “throwback” brands containing ordinary sugar. Even ketchup marketers are getting into the act. The news media, predictably, has jumped on this bandwagon with both feet.

Eventually, all the air is going to be sucked out of our collective high-fructose paranoia. As anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy is finding out, crackpot theories have a nasty habit of being proven wrong. Even The New York Times has editorialized in approval of the “corn sugar” name, which could signal the beginning of the end.

NEXT: Americans don’t care which squares on the Periodic Table their food occupies