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March 2, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Why I like Stewart's Ginger Beer
--- and why it scares me


I came across my first bottle of Stewart's Ginger Beer at Japhy's Soup and Noodles in Northtown Arcata, the noodle and soup emporium that's almost always full of hungry students and other Arcatans filling up on soup, spicy Thai curry or an array of noodles served with broth, without broth or -- my personal preference -- over-sized cold salads.

I generally order an Udon salad with a spicy dressing (Japhy's offers several), so I figured a spicy drink would be a good accompaniment. It was. Stewart's doesn't hold back on the ginger -- the drink has a definite burn, even a kick, to it. It's not overly sweet like some, nor does it have the musty aftertaste found in many of the wide array of ginger beers and ginger ales on the market.

But there was at least one small problem: It wasn't stocked at most of the grocery stores where I shop, only at Murphy's Market and, as my wife discovered, at Ray's. (Note to retailers: I found myself changing my shopping habits to buy four-packs of this one drink.)

Suspecting that the Stewart on the label who has made "fountain classics" since 1924 might be an imaginary being akin to Betty Crocker, I checked out the company website. There I learned that Frank Stewart was a real person, a schoolteacher from Mansfield, Ohio, who augmented his salary by selling Stewart's Root Beer at drive-in stands "in tall, frosty mugs."

Frank's root beer was not bottled until 1990, when Cable Car Beverage Corp. of Denver, Colo., acquired the bottling rights, and I'm guessing Frank was gone by then. In 1992 Stewart's expanded their line adding ginger beer and cream soda.

More new flavors were added to the line, then, according to the industry magazine Beverage Digest, in 1997, Stewart's Beverages Inc. -- formerly known as Cable Car Beverage Corp. -- was acquired by Triarc Beverage Group, which had just weeks earlier purchased the Snapple brand from another food industry giant, Quaker Oats.

Triarc, whose subsidiaries also included the Mistic and Royal Crown beverage lines, changed its name to Snapple Beverage Group in the summer of 2000; by the end of the year the company was sold to Cadbury Schweppes PLC, a multi-national beverage/candy corporation whose assets include 7-Up, Canada Dry, Clamato, Dr. Pepper, Rose's Lime Juice and "fruit juicy" Hawaiian Punch, along with over a dozen candy lines and scores of products: Cadbury chocolates, Trident, Dentyne and Bubblicious gum, and those tart and gummy Sour Patch Kids you find at the movie theater among them.

The Cadbury Schweppes website includes a mission statement declaring that, "Our core purpose is working together to create brands people love. Our goals are: Deliver top quartile shareowner returns, profitably double global confectionery share [and] profitably maintain and grow regional beverages share"

Making money by making things people want is not an unusual corporate goal. But there are things that worry me about the direction the makers of Stewart's Fountain Classics and the mega-corporations that make much of our food have chosen. Take a look at the ingredients labels on most of the products listed above, including the ginger beer I like so much, and you'll find somewhere high on the list a relatively new "food": high-fructose corn syrup. (It's just below carbonated water in Stewart's Ginger Beer.)

American food manufacturers jumped on the high-fructose bandwagon in the '80s, when processing improvements brought the price of corn sweetener below that of cane and beet sugar. It's a natural for sodas in particular, since it dissolves more easily and it's sweeter, so you can use less.

According to a study on "U.S. Per Capita Food Trends" published in Food Review magazine, consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has increased by 4,000 percent since it was introduced in the '70s. The average American consumes 63 pounds of the stuff every year, accounting for between 15 to 20 percent of his or her daily calorie intake.

Is that bad? Well, depends on who you ask. The World Health Organization recommends a limit on added sugar in food and drink to 10 percent of daily calorie consumption, which they figure would help stem the rising tide of obesity and, with it, the growth in things like Type 2 diabetes.

Some worry about the fact that most corn in the U.S. is genetically modified, as are key enzymes used in the corn-to-syrup process, and we don't really know about the long term effects of GMOs.

But even nutritionists who are unconcerned about that aspect worry about another factor. I'll admit, I'm far from being an expert on nutrition and this is complicated stuff, but there's a difference between how the body absorbs the old-fashioned type of cane/beet sugar and the new stuff, HFCS.

It is not totally clear how it works because there have been no long-term studies, but it seems that when our bodies process fructose, it has an effect on metabolic-regulating hormones that does not increase insulin production the way regular sugar does. This is good for diabetics, but bad for everyone else. While fructose seems to cause the liver to send more fat into the bloodstream, it does not stop us from being hungry, so even though we just took in a bunch of calories we want to eat more.

The end result: You wash down that hamburger and fries (dipped in fructose-laced catsup) with a beverage that tricks you into thinking you're still hungry. How about another burger? What's good for food sales may well be bad for the consumer.

Is it a coincidence that America's obesity rate shot up in the '80s, around the same time the food processors switched to HFCS? You might think corporations would be concerned that their success might kill off their customers. Unfortunately, "top quartile shareowner returns" seem to be of more importance.

Will all this talk of food politics stop me from enjoying my next ginger beer? Not really, but I'll try to be more aware of what I'm putting in my body, and maybe when I'm thirsty I'll drink a glass of water instead.



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