09 May 2010


A few years ago, my son went to Thailand with a work group for a couple weeks, and he brought me back a treasure: a real Coke.

Remember what Coke tasted like before high fructose corn syrup? Sweet, but not sticky. In fact, it had the tiniest bit of a bite - just a hint of something, I don't know... spicy, or maybe even peppery. When you poured it into a glass and took a sip before it settled, the frothy bubbles tickled your nose. I know - they still do, but not in the same way. It was a delicate tickle, a light, icy sizzle, not the obviously bubbly pop-pop-pop you get now.

Back home, in North Carolina, we called them "Co'Colas." A coke - lower-case "c" - was any carbonated soft drink. (I expect it made the Coke people crazy, kind of like it does the Kleenex people when you refer to any facial tissue as a "kleenex.") The new ones, the ones they call "Coke Classic," aren't Co'Colas. They really are different.

Since Mitch's trip to Thailand, I've found if you look, you can get Co'Colas here in the States. You just have to know where to look.

Last week, my daughter took me on a field trip to an Asian market in the South End. I bought Chinese Five Spice blend - all the good Asian cookbooks call for it, but try finding it at Kroger, or even Whole Foods! I bought fat, crunchy bean sprouts, and I bought plum wine. And I bought Cokes.

Apparently, the Asian and Hispanic communities are not as susceptible to HFCS hype as we Anglos. I've known all along that high fructose corn syrup was (you'll pardon my saying) not the same as cane sugar, contrary to what the corn syrup marketers would have you believe. Yes, it has the same calories. Yes, it's sweet, just like sugar. But there's something about it - probably something in the process of condensing corn sugar into syrup - that gives me a blazing headache. So I've been drinking diet sodas for decades, ever since I made the connection using the doctor-recommended "elimination diet." Believe me, it doesn't take too many episodes of having your brain burst into flames and scorch your eyeballs from the inside to convince you that whatever does it is a Bad Thing.

But the thing is, there is also a difference in the taste. If you don't believe me - if you're absolutely convinced there is no difference whatsoever in corn syrup and sugar - get yourself to your nearest Asian or Mexican market and buy a Coke there. They still pack them in 12-ounce glass bottles, the kind we used to put a 3-cent deposit on, then got our deposit back or credited it to the next Coke when we returned the empty bottle to be reused. (Hey, we recycled in the '50s and '60s - who knew?!)

I bought two Cokes last week. They don't set my head on fire like the American-market kind, but they still have significant empty calories. I like to have them for treats when I've been working hard.

I just drank the second one. There's still a teensy bit of dark caramel-colored liquid in the bottom of the glass, under the ice. I'll sip Coke-flavored icy water for a few minutes more, as the ice melts and the flavor gets thinner and thinner.

And I'll wonder, as I always do when I have one of these fizzy, icy treats: How come we affluent, educated, diet-obsessed Westerners shrug off marketing hype and don't even question the corn syrup marketers when they lie to us? They lie about the taste - and there's real evidence they lie about the health effects. (I could get scientific here, but for the sake of brevity, I'll stick to the headache thing for now.) How come we turn a blind eye to the obvious? Clearly, enough people don't that the Coke people can continue to profit by making real Coke to sell somewhere.

Go figure.

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