“Corn Sugar” And Lame Attempts To Mislead You About Food

Corn growers look to rename high fructose corn syrup as consumer fears continue to rise.

High fructose corn syrup could soon be known as ‘corn sugar’. The Corn Refiners Association in the US has been on a media campaign recently, aiming at changing the way the public views high fructose corn syrup. According to the Associated Press, consumption of high fructose corn syrup is at a 20 year low, depressed by growing consumer interest in avoiding what many consider to be an unhealthy sweetener. Whether or not high fructose corn syrup is actually worse than other sugars doesn’t seem to be relevant.

The Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the US FDA to allow it to rename high fructose corn syrup as ‘corn sugar’ on food labels. Alas, high fructose corn syrup by any other name would still taste as sweet. This renaming business is just the latest and lamest attempt from industrialized food producers to direct how we eat. It always seems that in the fight to change consumer habits in the US, misdirection is the weapon of choice.

The US public has slowly come upon the idea that eating large amounts of high fructose corn syrup is bad. Where did they get this idea? There’s been experimental evidence popping up for years (here’s some recent work at Princeton) and many have pointed out to the correlation between rises in obesity and the rise in use of high fructose corn syrup in the US since the late 1970s. Whether or not these concerns over the sweetener will be confirmed by protracted scientific research doesn’t really matter. Consumers are fleeing high fructose corn syrup for other choices like beet and cane sugar.

For their part, corn growers and refiners have maintained that the body processes high fructose corn syrup the same as it does any other sugar. They have a website pushing the ‘facts’ about corn syrup, which cites its own scientific support. Yet, even as they attempt to persuade us that high fructose corn syrup isn’t as bad as we think, they’ve cut their losses and are looking to rebrand the product. Hence the arrival of corn sugar. They’ve given the new product it’s own website, and have aired commercials which highlight the “high fructose corn syrup is really just corn sugar” angle.

I, like many, started to wean myself off high fructose corn syrup years ago. It was difficult, the stuff is in nearly everything. Slowly, however, as I tried to find products that didn’t have the ‘corn sugar’ I found that I had to buy products that didn’t have any sweeteners at all. It dawned on me that avoiding high fructose corn syrup just to consume more ‘brown sugar’, ‘cane sugar’, molasses, honey, or agave nectar didn’t make much sense. As we’ve said before, consumers in the US simply eat too much sugar. Honestly, I no longer really care if high fructose corn syrup is worse for you than other sugars, I’m trying to avoid them all.

What I do care about is how companies try to mislead us using names and labels. Rebranding high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar – is that really going to fool people? Probably. We get fooled by labels all the time.

Not to pick on Shady Brook Farms, but here are three misleading parts of their packaging: 1) idyllic farm picture 2)using the ambiguous term ‘natural’ 3) representing meat-fat ratios by weight rather than calories. In regards to the latter, this meat has 8g of fat for every 112g serving (7%), yet 70 of its 160 calories per serving come from fat (44%).

Here’s one that gets me: fat percentages on meat packing. Ever bought lean meat that was “90/10” or “93/7” or “99% fat free”? Meat fat percentages are labeled by weight, but nutritionists have us thinking in calories. 90/10 meat is only 10% fat by weight, but it is typically 40% or more fat if you look at the caloric intake. That’s because a gram of fat has more calories than a gram of muscle. When given the option of labeling fat content by weight or calories, everyone chooses weight. Makes the meat seem leaner, and helps it sell better and typically at a higher price.

But wait there’s more. Look at many meat packages (or any food packages, really) and chances are that you’ll see a picturesque representation of a farm somewhere on it. A little red barn, a silo, some children playing maybe – it’s all very wholesome. It’s also almost always a lie. Industrial farming dominates agriculture in the US. There aren’t a lot of cute little red barns; there are enormous warehouses full of pinned animals, there are fields maintained by pesticides, and there are large corporations instead of family farms.

If you want that idyllic picture of a farm to be a reality, you may be tempted to buy products that are labeled as ‘all-natural’. The US FDA, however, doesn’t really regulate what constitutes ‘natural’. If it’s in the world it’s part of nature…so it’s natural, right? You could check for more meaningful labels such as ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ but you should be aware that those labels come with their own qualifications and limitations. Here’s a pro-animal interpretation of common meat labels.

To some degree pointing out the ways that food labels mislead us is too easy. The whole point of the bright colorful packaging is to get people to buy what’s inside. The packaging itself is the first sign that someone’s working to manipulate you. Which maybe means that we should stop buying packaged food, but also could mean we just need to understand and decode what the labels really mean. Corn sugar is just high fructose corn syrup, which is really just an added sugar that a product probably doesn’t need. Or if it does need it to be palatable…why are you choosing to eat it? Keep your eyes open folks, and let me know what other examples you find of misleading packaging. The pursuit of longevity starts with understanding what you are really putting in your body. Eat wise, everyone.

[image credit: Tshirt Insurgency, Shady Brook Farms]
[sources: Associated Press, Princeton News