It’s almost amusing. Actually, it is amusing. If Larry Page and Sergey Brin had not decided in 1997 to rename their now-famous search engine at Stanford University, it is entirely possible that much of our dialogue about the Internet would be filled with strange innuendo. Imagine a friend is curious about some topic or other. But for that change in name, you might be telling him, “Oh, I don’t know. Just backrub it.”
Which name is the better one, Google or Backrub? “Backrub” was descriptive in a way. The innovation of the search engine that we now call Google was that it ranked the importance of search results according to the number of backlinks that a web page had. It was a different approach than most other search engines at the time used.
We are probably no worse off today because of the name change. Indeed we are probably better off, with Google being considered by some to be one of the best company names. It takes only a quick backrub of the Internet — perhaps that does not sound so awful after all — to come up with many companies who have changed their names to avoid negative connotations with their name. Yahoo! is surely much better than the far-too-parochial Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. And people are still not entirely sure whether KFC adopted that name in 1999 to avoid connections with “Kentucky” (the state by that name trademarked its name and introduced substantial licensing fees), “Fried” (the company did not want its food products to seem totally unhealthy), or “Chicken” (government regulators were pressuring the company about its livestock practices).
But when does renaming something cross the line into becoming deceptive? In the last several years, high fructose corn syrup has been increasingly disparaged. It is found in many processed foods, most notably in soft drinks but also in soups, lunch meats, breads, cereals, condiments, and may others. It has been blamed for the high levels of obesity in the United States and as a contributor to a number of health issues.
The name “high fructose corn syrup” is essentially an accurate description. Derived from corn, this sweetener comes in a number of different varieties, all of which have a mixture of fructose and glucose. The most widely used variety, HFCS 55 has about 55% fructose and 42% glucose as compared with about equal amounts of fructose and glucose in sucrose (sugar). Critics point to the different metabolic pathways of fructose and glucose in the body, namely that fructose consumption does not result in the body’s production of leptin, which is an important substance in signalling the brain to stop sending hunger signals. It is fair to say, though, that there is a lack of consensus on the full impact of sucrose versus high fructose corn syrup consumption.
The Corn Refiners Association takes the view that both high fructose corn syrup and sucrose have “similar” glucose-to-fructose ratios, and that those ratios are similar to the ratios found in natural fruits and vegetables. Responding to advice from many quarters to reduce consumption of high fructose corn syrup, the Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) in September to change the name. “Corn sugar” is the name they prefer and believe it remains free of an unjustified stigma. Their views can be be found here .
There can be no doubt that in petitioning for a name change the corn industry is responding to criticisms about consumption levels of high fructose corn syrup. What is really at issue is whether changing the name is intended to be helpful in giving the public accurate information or is intended to be deceptive.
One name change that the Association points to in making its case to the FDA is the FDA’s approval in 2000 to rename prunes as “dried plums.” That action was initiated by the California Prune Board, which asserted that the public associated negative imagery with the name “prunes.” Indeed, after approval by the FDA, the Board itself was renamed and is now the California Dried Plum Board, still active in promoting the value of prunes, no matter what they call them.
The comparison that the corn industry wishes to make strikes me as a weak one, though. While the word “prune” does sound decidedly less palatable than “dried plum,” allegations of unhealthiness of the product were not part of the motivation for seeking a name change. And the purchase of prunes is made in a very different way than the purchase of high fructose corn syrup. Someone purchasing prunes knows exactly what they are buying, but no one really goes to the grocery store to pick up some high fructose corn syrup — it’s just there, so ubiquitously present that those who wish to avoid consuming it need to expend some fair effort in finding products that do not contain it.
Consumers deserve to know what they are buying and deserve to have useful information so they can decide for themselves what they wish to consume. This is true even if the scientific research about the health effects of products is unclear. It is even true if people are being irrational about what they choose to consume. It is, after all, their bodies and their responsibility to inform themselves about the health effects of what they eat. The precise contours of the corn industry’s motivation in seeking a name change thus need to be an essential part of the FDA’s deliberations.
It will be some time before the FDA reaches a decision. In the meantime, documents filed in connection with the petition, including comments from the public, can be found here. It is worth emphasizing the importance of these public comments, which very often have a real impact on the decisions reached by government agencies.