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A Corn Syrup Conundrum

Julia C. Lipman

There are elixirs that can bring you wisdom, eros, and even enlightenment. With their values of awareness and integration, they can even make you more socially conscious. And they're right there on your supermarket shelf. These strange tonics all consist largely of the same mystery ingredient: high fructose corn syrup. Yes, this everyday ingredient can apparently produce Zen-like effects, given the right flavoring and packaging.

Looking at the shelves of LaVerde's, or any supermarket, you might get the impression that there is a staggering variety of beverages on the market. There are drinks for people of every political persuasion, personality type, and academic interest. For the sci-fi aficionado, there's Orbitz, which looks like it might be more at home on a holodeck than in the student center. The coffee shop crowd can imagine that Cafe Liberty is still open while sipping a drink called "Coffeehouse USA" although, with flavors like "Banana's [sic] Foster," it might have trouble attracting the coffeehouse intellectual keen-eyed enough to spot a misplaced apostrophe. Idealistic liberals who have tired of protest and demonstration can take comfort in a "Strawberry Passion Awareness" Fruitopia and hope that enlightenment will eventually come to all. And macho conservative patriots can drink Arizona "Total Sport," which comes in a bottle designed to look like a textured metal thermos and printed with a 10-star American flag, ostensibly to express the timeless nature of the product.

Beverage companies are so desperate for a new angle that some of their marketing tactics have begun to border on the bizarre. Sports drink companies are marketing beverages with flavor names that have nothing to do with the actual flavors. So from Gatorade, we get "Riptide Rush," "Glacier Freeze," and, my favorite, "Arctic Shatter." Light blue and dark blue Powerade are helpfully distinguished by being labeled "Mountain Blast" and "Jagged Ice," respectively. And Jolt is apparently counting on sex to sell soda; how else to explain its "Citrus Climax" flavor?

The seemingly wide range of beverage choices available serves to obscure the reality that there really isn't much difference between a lot of these drinks. There are a lot of beverages out there, but those that don't list high fructose corn syrup, or, occasionally, plain old sugar, as the second ingredient after water are few and far between. You may be able to find beverages in 8-ounce bottles, 24-ounce bottles, and every non-prime number in between. But the contents of the bottles are depressingly similar.

Of course, sodas are expected to consist mainly of sugars. But these new (or sometimes not-so-new) drinks that are being marketed as juice or tea are far more insidious. A consumer who doesn't check labels scrupulously can be easily confused when brands like Tropicana and Veryfine, which are known for their juices, also sell highly sweetened "juice drinks" which contain about 20 percent juice. Snapple's new "Whippersnapple" drinks are "fruit smoothies" that only contain 15 percent juice. SoBe, of the aforementioned eros and enlightenment, gives the impression that it is selling wholesome herbal drinks "healthy refreshment," in the company's words when in fact, its beverages all contain corn syrup or sugar as a second ingredient. Nantucket Nectars, a company which vows to bring about "increased quality of life" through juice, also sells some "juice cocktails" with 21 percent juice; in fact, they're the only type of Nantucket Nectars sold in Lobdell. As a friend of mine remarked, if you can't trust the Juice Guys, who can you trust?

The capitalist response to this consumer conundrum is simply to stop buying the sweet, syrupy drinks. But even if you make it through the sea of misleading packaging, what are the real alternatives? There are a fair amount of pure juice drinks on the market of varying degrees of quality to choose from, provided one recognizes them as such. The situation is grimmer for iced tea fanciers. Lipton, Nestea, and Snapple all sell almost exclusively teas that are mainly high fructose corn syrup. For a while, LaVerde's was selling a drink called Honest Tea, which listed sugar near the bottom of its ingredients. Due to vendor problems, it has for now been replaced by something called Tazo, which also contains little sugar but is more expensive.

It's only due to FDA regulations that beverage companies print information like percentage of juice on their labels in the first place. By using this information, you can be a better beverage consumer. But being a savvy consumer has little meaning in a veritable desert of acceptable beverage choices. Isn't the 50K contest coming up soon? Forget about the Y2K problem; it's time to apply some serious brainpower to the 2MHFCS (Too Much High Fructose Corn Syrup) problem.