Kiwi (a.k.a. Chinese Gooseberry)
What to do if you're a New Zealand farmer trying to sell a tangy green fruit from the Yangtzee Valley in Northern China, roughly 10,000 miles away, when the native yang tao won't do, and neither will "Chinese gooseberry," as it was also called? You change its name, and add a dash of nationalism. That, essentially, is how we came to call the Vitamin C-rich kiwi (or kiwifruit) by something it is not: native to New Zealand (where folks, and some birds, are known as Kiwis). The marketing scheme was hatched in 1962, and by 1974, the name had stuck. And it turns out yang tao means strawberry peach, which is a pretty apt description of a kiwi. Anyway, the strategy has been pretty successful, as New Zealand remained the largest exporter of kiwifruit to the U.S., as of 2007, though fruit-producing vines have now been transplanted around the world, and imports have increased markedly from Italy and Chile.
Mahi Mahi (a.k.a. Dolphinfish)
Usually, when the locals in some far-flung locale have a name for something valuable, marketers come along and change it so that it will appeal to their customers back home. Not so with dolphinfish, which we call mahi mahi, just like the Pacific islanders do. Why? Easy: Even though dolphinfish aren't at all related to dolphins (they're fish, not mammals), the idea of eating a dolphin comes to mind when presented with dolphinfish as an option. Not so with mah mahi, which has a benign, slightly exotic and utterly safe taste on the tongue especially for those who are squeamish about eating certain sea creatures, but not others.
Mahi mahi is classified by the Montery Bay Aquarium and the Environmental Defense Fund as a Best Choice safe sustainable fish only when caught in U.S. waters by troll or pole. The longline fishery, especially from non-U.S. fisheries, is a problem because of the high levels of "bycatch" fish, turtles and other creatures that are caught and killed inadvertently.
Canola Oil (a.k.a. Rapeseed Oil)
Rapeseed is a flat-out wretched name for a cooking oil. If you're going to use the oil-rich seeds and turn them into biofuel, fine; by the time it gets to your tank, it's just fuel. But if you're cooking with the stuff, a name with more appeal is in order. Which is why in the 1970s its growers tried on some name changes. Low erucic acid rapeseed didn't exactly work, but Canadian oil, for the place the seed was grown was promising. Ultimately, in 1978, they found the sweet spot: Canadian oil, low acid Canola. It's fair to say that most chefs feel a whole lot more comfortable buying and cooking with Canola oil.
Chilean Sea Bass (a.k.a. Patagonian Toothfish)
There were big problems for fishermen bringing Patagonian toothfish to market. The fish swims deep in icy sub-Antarctic waters, it's ugly and the public at large wants nothing to do with something as unappealing as "toothfish" on their plates. (So its cousin, the Antarctic toothfish, wasn't going to help fishermen make a buck.) So the L.A. marketing genius that changed its name to Chilean sea bass (yum!) successfully opened a market for the flesh of the mild, white fish, back in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, it also set off a fishing frenzy, including an illegal fishing frenzy that claimed so many of the slow-maturing, long-lived sea bass that many conservation groups now consider them over-fished and at serious risk of depletion. The fishery, even where it's legal, also kills many albatross and other sea birds.
One small fishery has Marine Stewardship Council certification, but unless you see that marking, pass on Chilean sea bass, as says the campaign slogan that removed the fish from many menus. Sustainable alternatives to Chilean sea bass include farmed striped bass and Alaskan sablefish. Or try these grilled sustainable fish recipes.
Dried Plums (a.k.a. Prunes)
Everyone knows what prunes are for, and why your grandparents eat them, begrudgingly or not. Which is why the California Prune Board asked, and in 2000, received permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start calling them "dried plums," instead (after which it changed its own name to the California Dried Plum Board, and started littering its materials, ads and statements with the words dried plums). It's accurate like calling raisins "dried grapes," and it drops the bathroom connotation. Whatever you call them (we still think of them as prunes), they're loaded with vitamins, and really do make a great healthy snack, or a delicious addition to ordinarily savory dishes. Or, are we just saying that because the California
Prune Dried Plum Board is successfully marketing plums as a superfood?
Orange Roughy (a.k.a. Slimehead)
Orange roughy isn't obviously appetizing, but it sure beats slimehead, which is how the fish is known where it is caught, off the coast of New Zealand. It only caught on with U.S. consumers after it lost the slimy connotations, and unfortunately it's really caught on, and bottom trawling coupled with a long-lived (up to 150 years!) fish have endangered this fish. The Environmental Defense Fund recommends against eating orange roughy, whatever you call it.
While we're on the subject, another no-no is the monkfish, which tastes a lot like lobster, is really called a goosefish and is being fished unsustainably, too. Sustainable alternatives include farmed striped bass, Alaskan sablefish and farmed U.S. catfish. Or try these grilled sustainable fish recipes.
Corn Sugar (a.k.a. High Fructose Corn Syrup)
The campaigns against obesity and for real foods have continually irked the corn growers of America, and those who turn corn into high fructose corn syrup, which is added to just about every processed food sold in U.S. stores, from applesauce to soda. First, the industry made sure it could define its product as "natural," even though many consider it highly processed, and now the Corn Refiners Association is asking the Food and Drug Administration to allow it to rename its product "corn sugar." We've seen this movie before, or its prequel: In the early 1900s, the product was called "glucose," but the uncontrollable association of the words "glucose," "glue" and ... candy led the industry to call it "corn syrup."
In light of recent evidence that, chemically, the high fructose corn syrup in sodas may not be as similar to sugar as we thought, could influence the FDA decision. Then again, we're talking about government, and it could take two years for the agency to decide.