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This is your root beer on sugar

| Tuesday, February 28, 2017

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I love root beer. I never had a taste for Coke nor Pepsi, and so I spent most of my childhood searching for alternative soda options. It’s my favorite beverage to get at any restaurant casual enough to permit it. If such a thing exists, I consider myself an amateur root beer connoisseur. When my family celebrated my high-school graduation, I had a five-gallon keg of 1919 draft root beer on hand to drink “neat” or “on the float.”

Recently, however, I bought a bottle of IBC root beer — an old standby of mine — from LaFortune’s Smashburger, and I noticed several things right off the bat. First, they added a label to the face of the bottle as opposed to the minimalist packaging they’d used before. Second, there was a header above the brand name reading “made with real sugar.” Curious, I tried a taste. It was good, but not as good as I remembered it being. The difference from what I was used to from the IBC brand was night and day. I’ve had one or two since, but it’s no longer one of my favorites.

When a marketer says “real sugar,” what they mean is cane sugar or beet sugar. In contrast, what’s in most sodas is high fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup is extremely cheap due to American farm subsidies leading to massive corn production, so it makes sense for food companies eager to cut costs to adopt it as a base for their product. However, recent popular pressure has branded high fructose corn syrup as some sort of horrible chemical responsible for any disease you’d care to name. A lot of this perception comes from the “naturalistic fallacy” — a belief that a processed product like high fructose corn syrup is inherently worse than one that is supposedly less refined. I would recommend that those seeking inherently natural options sweeten their drinks with chunks of raw sugar cane; remember to stir vigorously!

This is not to say that all cane-sugar root beers taste bad. I’ve had some excellent ones over the years; I can particularly recommend Fitz’s, which I encountered when visiting Washington University in St. Louis. And I will be the first to admit that I may have grown up with so many high fructose corn syrup root beers that I’ve become acclimated to their unique flavor. But I feel that more and more companies are “healthwashing” their products by switching out corn syrup for “real” sugar. You may recall Pepsi and Mountain Dew “Throwback,” which similarly traded on the real sugar angle with a nostalgia filter layered on top. In cases such as IBC, this has come at the cost of a different taste.

Let’s get one thing straight — excessive sugar consumption is bad for you regardless of its vegetable of origin. Americans, myself included, consume far more sugar than we need to or probably should. On the question of sugar types, both the FDA and the Mayo Clinic have concluded that high fructose corn syrup is no worse for you than “real” sugar. High fructose corn syrup root beers aren’t health food, but they’re not the ones marketing themselves by saying “It’s good for you! See? We added sugar!”

Finally, it would be the worst step in the world for beverage companies to switch to sugar-free or reduced-sugar formulations. Have you ever had diet root beer? It’s worse than no drink at all and should be avoided at all costs. If you’re looking for a healthier way to drink root beer, go for reducing quantity, not quality. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get a Barq’s.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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