The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

In Praise of Pepsi “Throwback”

Sorry Coca Cola, But This Is the REAL “Real Thing”

I drink too much soda. I have known this for years. The only reason I don't weigh 400 pounds is because my mother, bless her little heart, saw soda as a treat when I was growing up, rather than as a dietary essential. Therefore, until I reached my teen years, got a job, and started buying my own junk food, my soda intake was limited to a six-pack per week. We went shopping once a week, we bought one six-pack of soda, and when it was gone, it was gone. No more until next week. Period. And there was no such thing as two-liter bottles back then (heck, we didn't even know what a “liter” was in those days) or even sixteen or twenty-ounce bottles. In fact, it was a really big deal when ten-ounce bottles came out, replacing the old seven-ounce standard. So at the most, when I was a kid I consumed about sixty ounces of soda per week.

Fast forward to the present – or at least to a recent time – when I would easily down that much in a single day. Grab a fast food biscuit in the morning and swallow it down with a soda. Pop a buck or so into a vending machine mid-morning for a twenty-ounce hit. Have one with lunch. Grab another twenty-ouncer at a convenience store while running afternoon errands. Wash down supper with a sixteen-ounce glass or two, and then sip one while watching TV at night. Wow! You don't really think about it until you really think about it, do you?

I really got to thinking about it after my last routine visit to the doctor. That's when I looked behind myself as I was standing on the scale to make sure the nurse didn't have her foot on it. That's also when I started calculating ounces and converting them to gallons and deciding something had to change.

I'm not unrealistic. I'll never completely quit drinking soda. But I have resolved – and pretty successfully so far – to return to the days of my youth and limit my intake to one a day. Two if I fall off the wagon. And wouldn't you know, just as I started screwing my resolve to the sticking place, along came the Pepsi Cola people to undermine my efforts with their “Throwback” line.

“Throwback” sodas are, as the name implies, a throwback to the days when such beverages were made with real, honest-to-goodness sugar instead of the cheap, nasty corn sweetener that is such a great affront to the American palate, and which, despite numerous health concerns, has become an overwhelming part of the American diet since the early 1980s

I've been on a tear in recent years to eliminate as much high fructose corn syrup from my diet as possible. I'm not one of those lackeys sold on the corn industry's “sugar is sugar” campaign. I believe otherwise. Health concerns aside, I can taste the difference between cane sugar and corn syrup and I much prefer the taste of sugar. Coca Cola tried to pee on our collective legs and tell us all it was raining when they abandoned the “New Coke” debacle in the '80s and returned to the “classic” formula – except they really didn't. They phased out expensive cane sugar and replaced it with cheap corn sweeteners. And I have always been able to tell the difference. Find a tienda that sells Mexican Coke and compare it to the stuff bottled in your area and you'll taste the difference, too. (Mexican Coke, made with sugar and bottled in Mexico, is not “officially” sold in the United States because if it were, people would stop drinking the abysmal dreck that Coca Cola has been “officially” marketing here since the “New Coke” disaster.)

Of course, Pepsi was no better. Over the years, they succumbed to cheapening their products, too, as did almost every major soft drink manufacturer. It was a gradual but ultimately effective dumbing down of the American palate. I suppose you could learn to like carbonated castor oil if somebody poured it down your throat every day for years and years.

But changes have been in the wind in recent days. In the first place, there's been a change in the balance on the “Cola Wars” front. Coca Cola has emerged as a clearer winner since Diet Coke pushed Pepsi from its perennial second place pedestal. You know how they used to say, “When you're number two, you try harder”? Well, that goes double when you're number three.

Secondly, people are beginning to reject HFCS in numbers great enough to cause panic among the pushers. That's why the Corn Refiners Association is ginning up a “corn sugar” campaign to pretty up the image of its tarnished product. And, despite official company denials, I believe that's one reason Pepsi decided to quietly return real sugar to its beverages under the “Throwback” label, a move that leaves me torn.

You see, the problem now is that since Pepsi is once again tasting like Pepsi did back when I was a member of “The Pepsi Generation,” I'm finding it much harder to stick to my plan to cut back. The stuff is just so darn good! Stripping forty years worth of inferior crap off my taste buds, Pepsi has once again “Come Alive.” And it has resurrected Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist, and Dr. Pepper right along with it. Of course, Sierra Mist doesn't claim to be a “Throwback.” It just touts the fact that it's made with “real sugar” and prominently displays the word “Natural” on it's label.

And that's where the corn pushers start to get testy. They quite correctly point out that corn is every bit as natural a product as sugar cane. That's the basis for their attempt to get the terminology changed so that “high fructose corn syrup” can simply be called “corn sugar.” Then they can continue to extoll the “naturalness” of “corn sugar” and to trumpet “sugar is sugar” to the gullible masses.

But any reputable scientist not in the employ of the corn industry will tell you that sugar is not sugar. There are different types of sugar and they are processed by the body in different ways. And the biggest difference between HFCS and cane sugar is the way the body processes them. It's not just a matter of taste.

The science at a very basic level says that what we commonly call “real” sugar throws an “off” switch in the brain that HFCS does not. Simply put, the body knows when it has had enough sugar and it says “enough.” With HFCS, there is no “off” switch. You could mainline the stuff intravenously and your body would never say “enough.” So while sugar does indeed make you fat, HFCS makes you fatter because your body lacks the chemical mechanism to stop consuming it when it should.

Okay, so does this qualify Pepsi “Throwback” as a health food? Emphatically not. Too much of a good thing is still too much. But it is a marginally better alternative to products sweetened with HFCS. At least a sugar-sweetened soda will give your body a sporting chance to regulate itself.

And of course you can't deny the taste factor. Once upon a time – 1929, to be precise – Coke advertised itself as “the pause that refreshes.” And that was probably true back in 1929 because Coke was then made with real sugar. In fact, the words “refresh” and “refreshing” repeat over and over in Coke's ad campaigns throughout the years. And that's what now sets “Throwback” sodas apart; there is something about Pepsi's “Throwback” products that is truly refreshing. There is a crisp taste and a clean mouth feel in a “Throwback” that is not present in a “regular” Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Coke or anything else made with cheap HFCS. Anybody with two working taste receptors in their mouth can tell the difference even if they can't quantify it. Call it a “kick,” call it a “charge,” call it a “Jolt” – as one cola maker already did. The taste of any of the “Throwback” products is just simply – refreshing, which various dictionaries define as “pleasantly fresh and different,” “pleasantly different or novel,” or “tending to refresh; invigorating.” Any soft drink will get your mouth wet – including the “diet” ones artificially sweetened in a chemistry lab – but the sensations produced on your palate by a quality sugar-sweetened beverage like any of the “Throwbacks” are truly “pleasantly fresh and different.” Cheap sweeteners are cheap and they leave a cheap, cloying aftertaste in your mouth. Don't take my word for it. Go get a “Throwback.” Try it and then try to deny it.

Unfortunately, most of two generations have been fed an increasingly steady diet of the cheap stuff and have never known the difference. Oh, there have been some small, regional efforts made by artisan producers like New Jersey's Boylan Bottling Company and the aforementioned “Jolt Cola,” which, sadly, also turned to HFCS before its ultimate demise. Whole Foods produces a line of sugar-sweetened sodas for sale in its stores,as do other “natural” retailers. But with the advent of Pepsi's “Throwback” line, a new nationwide “Pepsi Generation” is poised to discover what we graybeards once experienced long ago: the real Pepsi taste. And the good news is that after a lot of test marketing, Pepsi has determined that there is enough support for the product to keep it in permanent production, or, as a Pepsi rep put it, “as long as people are buying it, we'll make it.”

I'm buying it. Six-packs may be gone but that's okay. I'm content with purchasing a twelve-pack every couple of weeks. Thanks, Pepsi. Because of superior stuff like “Throwback,” I'll probably still drink too much soda.

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