Food & Drink

It's Been a Rough Month for Sugar

sugar illustration
Megan Chong/Thrillist

Sugar, the sweet crystalline ingredient most frequently found in divorced parents’ bribes, has not had a strong month. First, PepsiCo announced they would buy home seltzer maker SodaStream (“a good hedge” said Mad Money’s Jim Cramer!), then Coca-Cola announced they would acquire the 4,000-store Costa Coffee chain  (“a potentially decent fit,” said someone standing in a London bank!) and possibly Indian malted milk drink maker Horlicks Ltd, THEN on top of all that, Starbucks announced they’re beginning to test a lower sugar Frappuccino, because even upwardly mobile tweens posting suggestive hand gestures on secret social media accounts using Starbucks' free Wi-Fi have started to question the logic behind consuming 67 grams of sugar in one sitting.

The War on Sugar has been mobilizing for some time. Three years ago, the FDA released new health recommendations suggesting folks shouldn’t consume more than 50 grams of sugar a day. Old health guidelines, like the 1990 update, hadn’t focused on sugar, and instead demonized fats and cholesterol, which saw the rise of high-sugar, zero-fat foods like Snackwell’s cookies and contributed to the original Golden Age of Frozen Yogurt, a glorious time during which parents everywhere let their children eat giant 64-ounce sundaes of nonfat White Chocolate fro-yo while watching Blossom and Family Matters.

Working off these new numbers, in recent years federal nutrition programs helped reduce the number of sugary items in school lunches. Cities like New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco began instituting what became known as the “soda tax.” A study released last year in the health journal Obesity found sugary beverage consumption down 20% in children and 10% in adults from 2003. Fruit juice and sodas took major hits, replaced at the popular table by coconut water and seltzers. Coconut water consumption increased 228% worldwide from 2011 to 2016. Seltzer sales grew from $2.6 billion in 2011 to a projected $8.5 billion last year, led by LaCroix, the staple of the suburban Midwest turned cult beverage, inspiring them to create a “Curate” line of drinks in slimmer (sleek!), taller (sleeker!) cans “inspired by the romance of French and Spanish cultures” (sleekest?).

Starbucks frappuccinos

Because they are giant behemoths who essentially act as country-less corporate nation-states with marketing budgets that rival the GDPs of mid-sized European countries, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Coke and Pepsi already have sugar-free players in what business school students call their “portfolio,” most notably thanks to Coke’s recent acquisition of Texas hipster seltzer beverage Topo Chico last year. When three of the biggest drink manufacturers in the world each make a move in the past month away from the sugary thing that originally made them giant drink manufacturers, we’re reaching an inflection point.

All of these business decisions I was forced to look up on the internet underline a central theme in America: our weird love for absolutes, especially when it comes to diet. We, the American People, love a good scapegoat, and so, in the '90s, we blamed fats and cholesterol for destroying the health of our children and giving us premature dad bods despite the fact that we rollerbladed everyday while listening to Fine Young Cannibals, and now we have foisted the blame on sugar. But as much as we love a scapegoat, we also love its opposite: the perfect diet food, aka a food item that is, by the normal standards of diet, considered a “cheat food” or “dessert” or “cheese” but thanks to the latest health craze, considered something you can enjoy in unlimited quantities, as long as you stay away from the scapegoat.

This thinking helps explain why fad diets that promise you can eat as much of something as you want work so well here -- there is a constant need to feel like we’ve put something over on someone, even if it’s ourselves. No one wants to be told that just eating a balanced diet featuring small amounts of all the unhealthy things, and larger amounts of all the healthy things is the answer. No, we shout, viewing our health as if it’s a casino blackjack table. Surely there is some sort of angle or advantage to be played here, a way to, say, eat nothing but steak and bacon or cheese chips and mayonnaise. And some enterprising nutritionist sees us eagerly waving our hundred dollar bills around and they tell us what we want to hear.

A good way to test this theory is to look at the current best selling food books on Amazon right now. Seven of the top 16 books are the Keto diet, the current darling of the diet world, which essentially means eating some protein, lots of fat, and avoiding sugar. Pretty much all studies suggest that this diet, like EVERY OTHER FAD DIET, works well in the short term, but does just as terribly in the long-term, since the other thing we the American people have is short attention spans.  

And because everything is cyclical, it's only a matter of time before we reach a point where a new study will come out and sugar's prominence as the spokesperson for the Evil Foods Empire will fade, and Sodastream will release its home Pepsi mix (“sugar is back baby,” Jim Cramer will shout from a bathroom stall), and every Costa Coffee will feature a prominent standalone display of Mexican Cokes (“made with real cane sugar,” will say someone driving by a London bank), and, only then, when all the other market forces have aligned will Starbucks quietly start testing a nonfat fro-yo Frappuccino aimed at tweens, with an off-menu Snackwell's Devil's Food Cake cookie mix-in (*extreme Joey Lawrence voice* Whoa).

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's National Writer-at-Large and apparently an aggressive sugar fan. Follow along as he tweets pictures of his sugar cereals @KAlexander03.