What’s in a name change? How about this: imaginary impressions of made-up monikers

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October 11, 2011

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to start by again reminding readers of this blog to be sure to take a few minutes and send the FDA your opinion on the high fructose corn syrup name change game. As I hope you know by now, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) submitted a petition last year asking the FDA to allow “Corn Sugar” to appear on food labels in place of HFCS.  The CRA says we are “confused” by the name HFCS. In additional comments sent to the FDA this June, CRA president Audrae Erickson said, “The name ‘high fructose corn syrup’ elicits negative imagery, confuses consumers…and discourages consumption…”

Yes, HFCS does have a negative image. Millions of consumers are looking for it on labels, and not buying products containing HFCS. Big food companies have removed it from their products and are advertising the use of  “real sugar.” Also correct is that the name HFCS “discourages consumption,” but that’s the point of a free market with truthful food labeling. People decide what they want to consume and what they want to avoid. You can’t just change the name of a food ingredient because folks don’t like it!

In a check today of the public submissions at the FDA website on this issue, there are still only 127 public submissions, the same number as when I looked in September. I am still waiting to hear from the FDA regarding how many more have come in since the last update, and when the next update will be, but have not received an answer yet.

While there, I noticed a submission to the docket from the CRA this July containing numerous supporting documents, one being the “Field Report High Fructose Corn Syrup Study,” which sounded kind of interesting. Thinking folks from the Corn Refiners Association hit the shopping malls, pad and pencil in hand, to ask our opinion on the matter, I took a look.

And the survey said…

Not quite as I had imagined, the CRA “field report” conducted by a company called Knowledge Networks for yet another company called the MSR Group, was your more typical type survey using phone calls (to both published and nonpublished numbers!) and mailed questionnaires.  Described by Knowledge Networks as “a study examining different names for high fructose corn syrup…results of which will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration,” it examined “reactions to three names for high fructose corn syrup: corn sugar, corn sweetener and corn nectar.”

What I found most interesting in this particular study was the elimination of the “don’t know” option, that handy little circle to fill in with your pencil when you, uh, “don’t know.” But Knowledge Networks had an explanation for this little omission: that providing a “don’t know” option would allow some survey participants to  use it as an easy way out, rather than “thinking of a valid response.”

Along with the rest of the supporting material from the CRA was a 97-page document analyzing and supporting the survey methods and results from “one of the most cited authors in marketing,” Dr. Jerry Wind. In fact, more than 90 of the pages are devoted to  listing the credentials and accomplishments of Dr. Wind, which includes his many, many awards, his having obtained a  Ph.D in Marketing, and having co-authored The Power of Impossible Thinking. But in the few pages that were left came these tidbits: The study is “based on consumers’ perceptions…and not on their knowledge” (see why the “don’t know” option was needed!); two of the products asked about  (corn sweetener and corn nectar) were made up for the study purposes; and when folks in the study were given an actual definition of HFCS, over 30% said HFCS was the best name.

And talk about confusion: Dr. Wind, in describing the “rich set of findings” of the study said that all three of the “potential” names were thought to have “fewer calories” and less fructose “compared to high fructose corn syrup.”

As an old song put it, “Imagination is funny.”Especially when it’s the basis of a  marketing survey submitted to the FDA.