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March 2, 2006
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
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
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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