Name your poison

Posted: Apr 15, 2007 1:20 PM
Name your poison

Forgive me if I over-imbibe. I tip only one drink per day, but one drink's one too many . . . according to some folks I hear from too often. They, I am sure, would wish me to confess otherwise: "Can't you just say you've gone cold turkey?" They'd rather I lie. Why? Moderation is not supposed to be possible.

I refer, of course, to Coke. And Dr. Pepper. And Mountain Dew. That is: my favorite potable liquids. (Full disclosure: I get no money from any of the companies that make these fine products. Fuller disclosure: I would gladly accept money from these companies. Contact me, corporate flunkies, contact me!)

A reader in saner times — say, those halcyon days of the sixties and seventies, when I first opened my eyes to this kaleidic and sometimes idiotic world — would have thought that I must be referring to alcohol in its drinkable forms. You know, beer, wine, and the "spirits." And that any referent switcheroo to soft drinks was just absurd.

But these are not sane times, and one can today straight-facedly start up a conversation about the dangers of popular carbonated beverages on the street or the bus or the line at the DMV, debating for hours the wisdom of government oversight, regulation, and even downright prohibition of big-name "sodas."

How the tables have turned! The health nut crowd now lauds wine as a cure-all while blasting Coke and Pepsi as the devil's own true brew.

How soon we forget. Soft drinks (as they were once called) were invented and promoted in part to replace the "hard stuff," alcohol. The industry that grew up to promote these drinks was hailed as the savior of the masses. Coke became the virtuous alternative to Demon Rum.

Alas, no good deed goes unpunished, the corner cynic reminds us. And the corner cynic has a point. The willingness of culture's cruel pendulum to swing back and kick us when we've just gotten up is a lesson for the ages. Watch your backside.

The pendulum's return began with the anti-sugar craze. This led to two things:

One, a series of increasingly sophisticated sugar substitutes, such as saccharine, cyclamates, aspartame, sucralose, etc., and their regulation by the FDA, and consequent lobbying by the food and drug companies. (I could go on at length about these products, but hey: I don't use them. I look on a Diet Coke the way a serious gin tipster looks at near beer.)

Two, the ultimate sugar replacement: sugar.

I mean, of course, "high fructose corn syrup." This mad-scientists' sugar gets stuffed into nearly everything from cakes to colloids these days, and it is, according to our most popular health nut advisors (which probably means: tomorrow's discarded scientism shills), far worse for us than the refined sugar it replaced.

I am more than half way to believing them. I yearn for the days of the Coke and Dr. Pepper of my youth. Sweet and refreshing. Like the drinks sold in much of the rest of the world. (Some people go to Europe for the wine; I'm tempted to travel for the Coke.)

So you can guess my response. Wait for it . . . (drum roll) . . .

Why not just get rid of the tariffs on sugar? Why not just let market forces bring back refined sugar, and forget this managed-trade subsidy for Archer Daniels Midland and the corpulating process of modern life?

Sorry. "Corpulating" isn't a word. But it sounds better than "fattening," doesn't it?

Yes, Americans do seem to be putting on weight faster than a Sumo wrestler at an all-night Automat with a jockstrap jangling with brand-new Washington dollars. So if high fructose corn syrup is really so bad, how come the health nuts don't rise up in one voice to demand a level market playing field? Can't we turn the clock back 30 years and start over, at least regarding the chemistry of soft drinks?

Just get rid of a darn tariff.

So why don't we hear about this?

Well, it could be that the people who are most exercised about nannying you about over your food don't want the market to determine the content of what you eat and drink. That would, after all, take it out of their hands.

Or it could be that a level sweetener playing field has no political sweetener in it: no votes to be had. Politicians know that the votes that really count are pocket-book votes. Corn is a big crop. How would Senator Grassley get re-elected were it not for the High Fructose Corn interest? He's often in the news, helping Archer Daniels Midland with some tariff question. (Last year the big issue was Mexico. Mexico had raised up a tariff against El Norte's corn syrup. Grassley was grossly offended by this breach of free trade.)

It gets tricky, though. Brazilians have figured out how to make ethanol biofuel from sugar cane, so the price of sugar is rising.

But could all this be irrelevant? The science of corpulence is spreading into dozens of books, Ladies Home Journal articles, and PBS documentaries, and it's having non-political effects. The demand for high-fructose-corn-syrup-based soft drinks is waning. I won't give up my remaining Coke until they pry the ice-cold can from my fat fingers, but hey: one consumer doesn't have much effect.

I'm sure Senator Grassley's been brought before the Big Boys and told to pushpushPush stronger pro-corn policy. But these players at the game of money aren't thinking high fructose corn syrup. They're thinking ahead of the game: we gotta make our biofuels in America; no foreign oil substitutes! It's patriotism, dagnabbit.

We'll no doubt soon see a high tariff on foreign-produced bio-origin fuels.

High fructose corn syrup? So yesterday.

That should mean one thing: let nature and markets take their course. The idea of switching back to refined sugar may, in this situation, seem like too little too late. But at least it's not politically impossible, like putting the coke back into Coca-Cola.

Yes, folks, call me old-fashioned (like the donut): I'd settle for just the sugar.

(NOTE: Nothing in this column should be construed to excuse serving any beverage other than water in the public schools. Further, nothing in this column should be construed to excuse any government program to subsidize, promote, penalize, or discourage adults from drinking any drink they want.)