Food June 2006

Sweet Tea

Can one of the world’s oldest drinks help solve one of this country’s newest problems—the sugar epidemic? Two idealistic entrepreneurs think so

Even someone who ingests indecent quantities of sugar on a daily basis, as I do, understands that certain things can be too sweet. Specifically, sodas and other bottled drinks, which the nutrition realist Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and the new What to Eat, calls “liquid candy.” Candy is one thing—especially good candy, which even Nestle, a founding member of what resentful hedonists and industry apologists call the “food police,” endearingly admits to eating more often than she would like her readers to know. And I could hardly survive without my peculiar daily ration of leftover chocolate-spice frosting, which Maria’s Pastry in the North End, Boston’s Italian neighborhood, saves for me. Yet there’s something intolerable about commercial sweetened drinks.

Also see:

A Southern Picnic
Iced tea and what to serve with it. By Corby Kummer

That something is the kind of sugar most of them use. High-fructose corn syrup has been blamed for any number of ills, primarily its role in the 74 percent increase in obesity that this country has seen since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The New York Times recently documented a concurrent epidemic of diabetes, especially among minority urban populations, that has renewed alarm about the high-sugar, high-fat diet of children. My loyalty to a line of bottled drinks that contain the right kind of sugar, and not too much of it, led me to wonder what made them better, and whether they might be a plausible substitute for the drinks many children find in school vending machines.

Apparently the kind of sugar added to a food or drink has a strong effect not only on flavor but also on health. The dramatic rise in obesity parallels the takeover, in the 1980s, of high-fructose corn syrup from cane and beet sugars. Only in the 1970s did researchers succeed in converting cornstarch to syrup, at a time when the federal government was increasing its already heavy subsidies for corn farmers. The result was that conglomerates could sell truckloads of the new sweetener for less than they cost to produce. The food industry took high-fructose corn syrup as a margin-increasing godsend, and used it to put the sweet into sweet-and-sour ketchup, make nonfat yogurt palatable, and give semi-eternal shelf life to oddly soft, plastic-packaged bread. Greg Critser, the author of Fat Land, and Michael Pollan, the author of the new The Omnivore’s Dilemma, have helped make this history familiar, and almost every consumer watchdog group in the land has attacked the advertising that coerces children to pump colas and seemingly innocuous fruit drinks, which are practically straight corn syrup, into their innocent bodies.

Less familiar are studies positing a mechanism for the still-disputed link between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity. These center on the different hormonal effects of fructose versus glucose. Fructose doesn’t stimulate the production of insulin or trigger the production of leptin, a hormone that controls appetite. It doesn’t suppress ghrelin, a hunger stimulus. Table sugar does send signals of satiety and curb appetite, however temporarily. And the liver converts fructose to fat more efficiently than it converts glucose. To add (canned) icing to the cake, the fats the liver produces from fructose are triglycerides, which are bad for the heart.

The studies on hormones and fat production—mostly conducted by Peter Havel, of the University of California, Davis, and John Bantle, of the University of Minnesota—are still controversial, and naturally the corn industry refutes them. (It won’t be happy, either, about a forthcoming book by Gary Taubes on high-protein diets, which further explores the connection between high-fructose corn syrup and weight gain.) The industry points out that obesity levels have risen in many countries that don’t subsidize corn and that sweeten most commonly with beet and cane sugars. Besides, high-fructose corn syrup isn’t all fructose: 45percent of it is glucose. Many researchers, including Havel, spread the blame beyond high-fructose corn syrup. Levelheaded nutritionists like Nestle and Walter Willett, the author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, agree that more important than the rise of fructose is the invasion of cheap sugars into the American diet.

My own case against high-fructose corn syrup is that what little flavor it has is strangely violent: drinks sweetened with corn syrup taste like only their usually artificial flavorings, and the effect is a clobbering sweetness, as if someone had come up behind you, held your nose, and poured syrup down your throat. Artificial sweeteners—distinctively bitter saccharin (pink packets) or the milder, ethanol-like aspartame (blue)—are founts of flavor by comparison. (Rich Cohen’s new Sweet and Low makes the family history of a sweetener more dramatic and entertaining than you’d ever imagine it.) Cane syrup, which artisan soda makers have revived, seems by comparison complex and nuanced—as I believe almost all forms of cane sugar, especially true brown sugar, to be.

In drinks, less sugar is the key, and what sugar there is should be good. Hence my interest in Honest Tea.

Iced tea is the most refreshing of summer drinks. In the South, of course, it is a commodity, served from upright metal tanks with spigots. Usually it is very sweet and laced with lemon, and the tea flavor practically vanishes; or it is harsh and bitter, like Nestea’s powdered mix and most bottled iced teas. Small wonder that in many bottled versions tea is a nearly forgotten background to blaring fruit flavors. Anyone whose summers meant powerful, not overly sweet homemade iced tea knows that tea should be the primary flavor, and that a glass of iced tea is as refreshing and pure as a swim in a cool stream.

Honest Tea has many virtues, all of them implied by its punning name. But the primary ones are that it tastes like tea, isn’t too sweet, and doesn’t use high-fructose corn syrup. Among commercial iced teas it is the closest to the homemade tea of my childhood—and in some ways better. That tea—carefully steeped for what my grandmother called “tea essence,” sweetened while hot, and chilled so as not to cloud it—started with bags of indifferent tea. Honest Tea starts with very good Indian and Chinese loose-leaf tea, steeped exactly as tea experts dictate: loose, in just-boiled water.

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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