Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Product Showcase: Pepsi Throwback

Welcome back to the 1970s

I have been reticient so far in this column to plug any specific product, but a few product selections out there really have improved my "fast, cheap, and good quotient."  One that is right on the border, though, is Pepsi Throwback.

In about the mid-1970s, soft drink manufactureres began using high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to flavor their drinks.  It was purely an economic choice; HFCS is produced domestically from mass-grown corn (often, from corn that has been genetically modified in some way, but that is another kettle of worms), while natural sugar is often an import from areas tropical enough to grow sugar cane, hence subject to tarriffs.  HFCS also tends to extend the shelf life of some products, an additional economic boon for food manufacturers.

HFCS is a combination of fructose and glucose in certain proportions to each other; the most common is HFCS 55, which is 55% fructose.  And it has set off a firestorm of controversy.

The corn growers' industry has gone as far as to take out advertising promoting the acceptability of HFCS, and you know what?  They are right about some things.  It originates in corn, so it is "natural."  It is calorically equivalent to many other sweeteners, so by virtue of calories alone, it shouldn't change your weight.  And yes, like everything, a little bit probably won't kill you.

On the other hand, HFCS is a sweetener that is blended by man, and as such we cannot assume that our bodies can naturally handle it.  Sweetness typically is a sign to our bodies that a food is safe; the fructose in a blueberry tells us it is ripe, full of vitamins and antioxidants, and ready to eat.  There is a reason that we love maple sugar but don't eat maple leaves.  The further we get from foods we could have eaten 10,000 years ago, the more we are playing guessing games with our own bodies.

In the case of HFCS, who knows how our bodies handle it?  I know I have experimented, and if I hold my diet constant and substitute only one HFCS soda for an equivalent natural sugar soda, I gain noticeable fat in places I don't expect to find it, like my back.  If I switch back to the natural sugar soda (same caffeine, same calories, same caramel coloring), it goes away.  That's just me; we have no longitudinal studies.

Or do we?  Since the 1970s, we have been conducting an experiment on our population, changing the diet to include HFCS, saturated fat, and fast food, and the lifestyle to include more time in front of the TV and computer and less outside getting exercise and Vitamin D.  Our obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates are through the roof.  It is a jumbled mess, but addresssing some of these areas has to help.

This brings me to Pepsi Throwback.  It is made with natural sugar, just as it was in the 1970s, avoiding the HFCS.  I find that the mouthfeel is less cloying, and it is less likely to leave that overly-sweet residue in your mouth.  I like the taste better. 

It is offered in three varieties:  Pepsi Throwback, Mountain Dew Throwback, and Heritage Dr. Pepper.  As an History of Advertising instructor, I appreciate the vintage designs, especially the "10, 2, and 4" campaign on Dr. Pepper.

And it is only available through the end of February.  If your budget includes an occasional soda pop purchase, and you want to send a message to the big conglomerates that consumers want options about what they put in their bodies other than "HFCS or abstinence," you may want to pick up a pack. 

The Analysis:

Fast:  Yes, it is just as fast to pick up a 12-pack of Throwback as it is the standard Pepsi sitting beside it.

Cheap:  No.  Last night, I paid $4.58 for a 12-pack, which is 38 cents a can.  If you can hold out for a "3 for $11" special, it brings it down to under 31 cents a can.  Don't start buying this product if you are needing to make big cuts in your budget, and don't pass up more nutritious foods so you can "vote" for Throwback.  This only works if you substitute Throwback for a normal soda pop purchase, and then make it an occasional treat and not your beverage of choice.

Good:  A qualified "yes."  A can of carbonated sugar may never be the best thing you can do for yourself or for sustainability.  But sometimes "better than usual" is a step in the right direction.
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