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.

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.

The stories of Honest Tea’s trial and error—sediment at the bottom of early bottles; big, laundry bag–like tea balls bursting and spraying hot, wet tea leaves all over the factory floor and ceiling—have appealed to journalists and the tea’s many fans. So have the doughty attempts of Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff, two idealistic men with a business plan, modest start-up funding, and no experience, to establish a new bottled beverage with a do-good image in a fiercely competitive industry not known for its charitable deeds.

Goldman, the son of the Russia scholar Marshall Goldman and the China scholar Merle Goldman, went to Yale’s School of Management, known for the use in its curriculum of the nonprofit sector, where he heard Nalebuff, one of his professors, pose a question during a discussion of cola marketing: Why were soft drinks either way too sweet or artificially sweetened, with nothing in between? Nalebuff later looked into the tea industry in India and found that very good tea cost almost nothing more to brew than bad tea. Several business plans, rounds of family and personal fundraising, and many kitchen tea tastings later, Honest Tea rolled up to supermarkets and convenience stores. (Often it rolled around downtown Bethesda, Maryland, where Honest Tea has its offices and modest test kitchen, in Goldman’s U-Haul, or in the trunk of his wife’s car to and from the homeless shelter where she then worked.)

Now in its ninth year, Honest Tea comes in eighteen flavors (two new ones, Just Black and Just Green, are unsweetened) and is on the shelves of stores across the country, including the entire Whole Foods chain and some Target stores. (Starbucks owns its own tea company, Tazo, which makes a lightly sweetened, organic iced tea that tastes fine but is not as pure-flavored as Honest Tea.) Goldman says the company will break even for the first time next month.

Fundraising has gotten easier. The cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (who later drew the label for Honest Tea’s Peach Oo-La-Long) and the writer Andrew Tobias wrote fan letters and then checks to invest in the small, privately held company; one woman who simply liked the product eventually wrote a check for $250,000. (The company asks fans who send only good wishes to spread the word—it spends no money on advertising except in a few trade journals.) In the most recent round of fundraising, Goldman and Nalebuff had to turn away investors—and also companies that wanted to invest a little too much. If they decide to sell, Goldman says, it will be on their own terms, after the company has become profitable.

All very colorful, and admirable too. Royalties from sales of its herbal peppermint First Nation tea go to Native American groups in Montana. Some of its tea is “Fair Trade,” meaning guaranteed to put part of the profits into the hands of the people who raised and picked it. (Why not all the tea? Supplies of Fair Tradecertified tea are sometimes limited in the varieties Goldman needs. And sometimes the company can’t afford the surplus cost of certification.)

Goldman takes as a hero and model Gary Hirshberg, the founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farms, which has built a national organic brand of yogurt and marketed to parents concerned about their children’s health. Hirshberg sits on the Honest Tea board, and Goldman, as a friend and colleague, recently ob-served his attempts to get Stonyfield products into school vending machines. Could Honest Tea, he wondered, do the same thing?

The question took on some urgency at the beginning of this school year, when Goldman learned to his shock that the public elementary school where all three of his sons had gone—and for which, as head of the school’s foundation, he had helped raise more than $200,000—had put a soda machine right next to the new gym’s exit. Although it would be in service only after school hours, the machine stood just where children would be thirstiest. Similarly horrified parents insisted that it be removed. (Many cities and states have outlawed such machines; others place restrictions on hours of operation and on drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup. A recently introduced amendment to the National School Lunch Act, which has bipartisan support, would regulate all food and drink sold in school vending machines with an eye to whether they promote obesity or chronic illness.) Here, far too close to home, was a point on the carbohydrate continuum that Goldman once heard described at a convenience-store convention: “Wewant ’em to go from apple juice to soda to beer.”

If a school in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the country’s richest per capita, feels compelled to raise a few hundred dollars a month from a vending machine selling syrup-laced sodas, Goldman says, imagine trying to change schools all over the country. The challenges to Honest Tea in schools start with distribution and profit margins schools earn from big-business beverages. They go on to include caffeine, which some schools ban and many others are concerned about, and extend to glass bottles, which schools usually don’t allow. Beverage companies generally supply the machines, which need maintenance; Goldman doesn’t want to spend the money or to send his team around to make repairs. And big beverage companies have sales forces just for schools, which Honest Tea can’t afford.

But if parents and schools band together, they can put better snacks and drinks into vending machines. The parents at Goldman’s local school managed to get the sodas and the picture of a brand-name soda removed, but Goldman calls it “a Pyrrhic victory”—the machine is still there, selling sugar-laced fruit drinks. A school system in Minnesota has put Honest Tea in its vending machines. The local success story is the Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, D.C., which subsidizes Honest Tea there by charging the same for it as for Coke even though it gets less per bottle. And Goldman admits that Coke still outsells Honest Tea.

But that may change, and Honest Tea will be ready. Two years ago it began bottling in plastic, partly to get into more vending machines, especially in schools. Four of its teas are decaf or herbal. Last year the company launched two flavors of Honest Ade (limeade and cranberry lemonade), and it just launched one with pomegranate, grape, and blueberry juices. I tasted the pomegranate ade when I visited the Honest Tea offices recently. It was pleasant, with a slight tartness and a strong fruit flavor. It contains half as much sugar as most other fruit drinks (Goldman claims that all Honest Ades use less than half as much sugar as similar drinks from Snapple, his closest competitor).

This is what should refresh students coming out of the gym. Of course, there’s always tap water. But however good it may be for health, it doesn’t have that small amount of real sugar—and I know what it takes to get through a day.