Here’s a food riddle: When is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) not high-fructose corn syrup? When it’s “corn sugar.” Yes, get ready to start seeing this new, innocent-sounding moniker pop up in commercials and on labels. Because of the thrashing HFCS has taken in the court of public opinion in the past few years, its makers have decided to help it shed its old battered skin and emerge as a sleeker, more natural-sounding product.
Rebranding happens all the time in the corporate world. Philip Morris became Altria. The SciFi Channel became SyFy, GMAC became Ally Bank, Puff Daddy became Diddy, and Prince became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. When a name—for one reason or another—just isn’t working, the strategy is to regroup and debut as something else.
You may think of foods as having fixed and immutable names, but the truth is that food products can be rebranded just as easily as any other corporation, product, or person. The latest example is the attempt by the Corn Refiners’ Association to shed the negative image of HFCS by calling it something sweet and tempting, like “corn sugar.” Some rebrandings are successful and some aren’t, but some of our most commonplace foods didn’t always go by the name they have now.
Aspartame, aka AminoSweet
Discovered in 1965, aspartame was among the first major artificial sweeteners to hit the U.S. food market, and because of its potency and lack of calories, manufacturers put it in everything. But due to competition from newer sweeteners and persistent rumors that the chemical is linked to cancerous tumors, sales of aspartame have lagged in recent years. The FDA has consistently maintained that aspartame is safe, but in early 2010, Ajinomoto (one company that manufactures the compound) decided to rename it AminoSweet. The new name is meant to make the product sound more natural and to evoke the two amino acids that account for its sweetness.
Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed Oil, aka Canola Oil
There’s no such thing as a canola. Actually, the proper spelling is “Canola” with a capital C, because Canola isn’t even a plant—it’s the proper name of the product.
Canola oil comes from the rapeseed plant. Rapeseed oil was used in many parts of the world for cooking and industrial purposes, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it became a staple in American kitchens, after Canadian scientists genetically engineered a strain of rapeseed plant that yielded a product significantly less bitter than regular rapeseed oil. It also contained less erucic acid, which had been associated with heart problems. The tasteless, odorless oil was perfect for cooking and baking, but manufacturers decided that “low erucic acid rapeseed oil” was not likely to motivate consumers to buy. They called the new oil Canola oil, after the name given to the experimental seed by the Canadian government: Can.-O.-L.A., which stood for Canadian, oilseed, low-acid. Thanks to smart branding, today it’s the third most popular cooking oil in the United States.
Prunes, aka Dried Plums
Prunes rank at the very top of the “Things That Are Closely Identified with Old People” list, making them a tough sell to anyone other than older folks. The fruit, which is extraordinarily high in vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber, gained a bad reputation in the United States, even though people from other countries consider it a normal and healthy snack. In 2000, California prune growers decided to rebrand the fruit as a “dried plum” in order to distance it from images of the elderly, laxatives, and nursing homes.
Chinese Gooseberry, aka Kiwifruit
In another case of Americans and our fruit prejudices, importers in the 1960s decided that the Chinese gooseberry, imported from New Zealand, needed a makeover. They decided to rename it kiwifruit to honor the flightless national bird of New Zealand. Once the new name took hold, sales took off.
Baby Carrots, aka Junk Food
In an attempt to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, carrot farmers have unveiled what’s believed to be the first marketing campaign expressly intended to boost sales of a single vegetable. Their message: carrots are just as cool as other crunchy, neon-orange chips, doodles, and snacks. According to USA Today, the twenty-five-million-dollar plan includes packaging baby carrots in junk food–style packaging, selling them in vending machines, and circulating catchy slogans like “The original orange doodle.” The goal is to create an image of carrots as sexy, tasty, youthful, and “extreme.”
Would a prune by any other name taste as sweet? Well, in the eye of the American consumer, a name is everything, and these products have risked everything to become something more palatable, more approachable, and more profitable. People may be turned off by high-fructose corn syrup, but who can resist the sweet appeal of corn sugar? In the eyes of these products’ manufacturers, hopefully not you.