Lately it seems you can hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without stumbling on something about corn syrup—the high fructose variety, that is. You almost have to pity the poor beleaguered Corn Refiners Association whose petition to the FDA to change the dread name of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to “corn sugar” was recently denied. What a beating the stuff has taken, with luminaries like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle suggesting that it be called “Enzymatically Altered Corn Glucose” or “Corn Glucose and Fructose Syrup.”
Like the rest of the world, I’m all for wholesome and nutritious food and far be it from me to enter the fray currently raging on whether the body is capable of distinguishing between sucrose, glucose, and fructose. I have my own, more humble, interest in the debate over the re-naming of high fructose corn syrup. Why does the Corn Refiners Association think “sugar” sounds more appealing than “syrup”? Is it simply any old name change they want or do they think there’s something particular about “syrup” that’s been hurting sales?
Obviously sugar has a place not only in our cakes and candies, but in our romantic vocabulary as well. Who doesn’t know the old songs “Sugar, ah Honey, Honey, you are my candy girl and you’ve got me wanting you” and “Sugarpie, Honeybunch, you know that I love you”? But when was the last time you heard anyone calling his sweetie “Syrup”? Is it that much harder to croon than “Sugar”—or “Honey,” “Sweetheart,” “Pumpkin,” or “Apple Dumpling”? If you can call the one you love “Pumpkin” or “Apple Dumpling,” then why, for heaven’s sake, not “Syrup”?
Now, few people would say no to Vermont maple syrup on their pancakes or to a glog of chocolate syrup in a tall glass of milk. Cough syrup may not be as appetizing, but if it does the job it’s meant to do, we try our best to swallow it. We have a harder time swallowing syrupy words, though, because we know they’re likely to be exaggerated, less than honest, a bit saccharine, or just not quite right. Sweet-talk is all well and good, but cloyingly sweet sweet-talk is, well, just plain syrupy.
None of this is to say that sugar is exempt from such sour associations. Shakespeare himself warned against poison decked out “with sugar’d words” and what’s a Sugar Daddy—and I don’t mean the candy—but a rich guy who trades expensive gifts for favors of a more corporeal nature? There’s a website called Sugar World that matches up wannabe Sugar Daddies with wannabe Sugar Babies: “Treat your sugar baby right and she will be your arm candy,” it promises prospective clients. I make no comment on the morality of the site; I simply note the words it uses, which, if you ask me, are a bit syrupy.
In this context, I wonder whether a historical coincidence is so very coincidental after all. The 1930’s witnessed the huge popularity of corn syrup—it was in the 30’s that the wife of a Karo Corn Syrup sales executive “discovered a new use for corn syrup. A mixture of corn syrup, sugar, eggs, vanilla and pecans baked in a pie shell produces the now classic Pecan Pie destined to become a world class favorite.” It was also at this time that “Sugar” was first used as a term of endearment. Strange, isn’t it? If Karo Corn Syrup suddenly became the ingredient du jour, why was it “Sugar” that became the preferred nom d’amour?
Perhaps because, as I think it’s safe to say, syrup is a stickier word than sugar, which makes me wonder whether, some eighty years later, the Corn Refiners Association wants to ditch the old familiar name "corn syrup" because it’s been dragged through the mud by nutrition advocates or because they wanted to cash in on some of the honest-to-goodness sweetness of sugar.
So cast your votes. How do you want your corn? Sugar'd or syrupy?