Sugar Baby

While waiting for my mother’s surgery in Columbia to finish, I went to a Dunkin’ Donuts up the street for an iced coffee.

“Cream and sugar?” the man behind the counter asked.

“Yes, please,” I answered. I stop in at Dunkin’ Donuts occasionally in Dayton for iced coffee. I’d assumed that they would have some kind of industry standard. I was wrong. The beverage that they handed back over the counter to me was so sweet that it made my teeth twinge. I asked for another and told them no sugar, it was safer to add it myself.

What is it with the south and over-sweet drinks? I spent a lot of years south of the Mason-Dixon line. As I am famous for saying-  “Ma famly has bin in Sou Cah-lina fer two hunnert an fitty yeas.” My Carolinian Nana taught me to make iced tea. I still make it her way, and I can promise you it’s not half-syrup. There’s a third of a cup of sugar in half a gallon of tea.

But order sweet tea in any restaurant south of the Ohio river and you will be served something that so’s sweet it could choke a horse. All of the sweet tea in every McDonald’s is so oversweet that I put in one-quarter cup sweet tea and fill up the rest with unsweetened. The standard amount of “liquid sugar” McDonald’s puts in their otherwise delicious iced coffee is six pumps worth. Six. When I order now I tell them one. If you get a flavor in addition, that’s more syrup. I just don’t get it. Why don’t they just make it mildly sweet and people who need more junk in theirs can add it? It would save them money.

I have a reasonably happy relationship with sugar. I buy cane sugar. I know the politics of cane sugar are complicated, and I wish there was a way to ensure that the sugar I bought was produced, like coffee, in a fair trade environment. Maybe one day. I have chewed on raw sugar cane, sweet stuff. I realize that there are sweeteners regarded as healthier, like honey and agave nectar and I do use honey in some circumstances. Like hot toddies, you can’t make a hot toddy without honey. But I don’t have an issue with sugar. I think it’s basically an honest staple.

There are 16 calories in a teaspoon of sugar, 4.2g of carbohydrate, all sugars. There is no fat and no protein. While the estimates of sugar consumption in the US is said to be around 60 kg a year, only half of that is “sucrose,” or what we consider “table sugar.” The rest of it is the insidious corn sweeteners, which I’ll get to in a second.

Though I drink hot coffee black, I drink cafe au lait with sugar, and hot tea with sugar and iced tea and iced coffee with sugar. (Hot toddies get honey, though, remember?) I also use a tiny bit of sugar when caramelizing onions, or on collard greens, and when I make the dressing for cole slaw or potato salad. Not to make those things taste sweet, but the use of sugar in savory dishes brings out a certain flavor note that is otherwise missing. It also does a dandy job of cutting bitterness. And according to Mary Poppins, it makes the medicine go down.

I use sugar, I like sugar, I have a reasonably healthy relationship sugar that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t so vigilant. Artificial sweeteners are everywhere, and in this group I include the dreaded High Fructose Corn Syrup. Every time I read that in an ingredient list, it pisses me off. It’s a signal to me that the company cares so much about their bottom line that they don’t care if they’re poisoning their customers.

Though the producers of High Fructose Corn Syrup have tried to re-brand it as “corn sugar,” the application to do so was rejected by the US Food and Drug administration. Anyway, the jig is up. The public knows. Savvy food producers are labeling their products No HFCS!. High Fructose Corn Syrup has already been metabolized so it provides little energy for your body and it has been convincingly linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, cardiac disease, dietary zinc loss and copper gain which impairs metabolic function, particularly in children with autism.

Some US bee keepers began feeding honey bees High Fructose Corn Syrup, but a study in 2009 found that in temperatures above 45 degrees celsius, the HFCS turned into hydroxymethylfurfural, which is very toxic to honey bees. It’s hard not to think of the honey bees as being a bit like the canary in the coal mine.

Where are they putting this ghastly stuff? Read the labels on yogurt, peanut butter, jam, soup, breads and buns, pickles, salad dressings, cookies, and cereals. And soda. Unless you’re buying Mexican soda, or small batch high-end soda, you are getting a whopping dose of High Fructose Corn Syrup with every sip of sparkling soda pop.

Then there are the low-calorie artificial sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame, splenda, stevia, truvia. Saccharin has been off the market for years, since a study linked ingestion of massive amounts to cancer in rats. I know a woman who wept when they took her Tab away. Even as a child I didn’t like things sweetened with saccharin, there was always a nasty aftertaste. Now Aspartame reigns supreme. It replaces HFCS in diet sodas. It is in pharmaceuticals, nut snacks promoted as “healthy,” “lite” yogurts, (and many other “lite” products) and in the pickled ginger of every sushi restaurant you frequented.

I am a firm believer that products containing aspartame should be legally required to prominently advertise that fact. Aspartame makes me sick. It is also a known migraine trigger for me, so as you might imagine I was pretty shocked to find it was an ingredient in a migraine medication. Even the neurologist was astounded. Though there have been wide-spread internet assertions that aspartame contains formaldehyde (that’s true apparently) and is linked to everything from Multiple Sclerosis to Autism to Alzheimer’s, these claims have mostly been refuted by government agencies. It’s hard to know what the truth is, but I know what’s true for me: aspartame gives me migraine headaches and I resent suppliers sneaking it in everywhere just so people can eat supposed zero-calorie foods.  We need calories, better to choose carefully, and not have to subject your body to chemical sweeteners.

As to the original question about sweet drinks in the south– who knows how an entire population has been brought up to desire drinks so sweet they make the rest of us gag.  Maybe it’s akin to the southern notions of friendliness, which they apply with a trowel. Of course, some of that is quite insincere, the aspartame of social interaction.  Just like iced coffee, I don’t need a truckload of sweetness, but please, when you offer sugar, bring the real thing.

My mother’s surgery has been all-consuming. It’s hard to stay focused when you’re constantly trying to anticipate the needs of another human being. I’ve managed to wear the pedometer and keep the journal, but I haven’t met a single day of steps, and yet everyday I am totally exhausted.

Target for the last four days: 54  Steps: 4268, 2402, 2585, 312 (yes, three hundred and twelve, sigh.)

Consumed Thursday: yogurt with granola, breakfast burrito, iced coffee.  Afternoon snack: glazed donut, 3 cups of watermelon, Dinner: two slices prosciutto, two ounces brie, two slices ciabatta, half an avocado.

Consumed Friday: 2 scrambled eggs, half an avocado, ounce of brie, slice of prosciutto, slice of ciabatta,  three hard-boiled eggs,  two peaches, roast chicken thigh, two cups of watermelon, slice of peach bread.

Consumed Saturday: two peaches, hard-boiled egg, roast chicken thigh, two cups watermelon, slice of Quiche, slice of peach bread.

Consumed Sunday: slice of Quiche, hard-boiled egg, two peaches, yogurt with granola, roast chicken leg, half a cup boiled shrimp, half an avocado, half a sliced tomato, half cup of sautéed summer squash. Frozen strawberry fruit bar.

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