|The Bitter Truth
From the heart of this fountain of delight wells up some bitter taste to choke them even amid the flowers.
-Titus Lucretius Carus, 99-55 B.C.
Maybe so TLC, but the nation's soft drink peddlers of today seem to think that we consumers like a bit of bitterness in our drinks, if not in our lives. At least they would have us think so in their efforts on behalf of the Great Caffeine Cover-up.
Bitter is better, they say, but they fail to tell us who it's better for. We who consume their beverages to the tune of 15 billion gallons a year, or they who sell us all that soda pop? If you know the answer, it's not a question.
Next thing we know, Coke, Pepsi, Royal Crown, Mountain Dew and the rest of the pack will be quoting Shakespeare in a colossal combined sales promotion. What better way to convince us they're looking out for our good than to swamp us with these words from literature's most famed bard of all time:
Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
-Shakespeare's King John, 1594
Ah, American marketers. Where would we be without that bunch of benevolent beings looking out for our welfare? Who would dare say there's even a tinge of profit motive in their pouring more caffeine down our throats?
Come to think of it, I would, and dear reader, you, too, if given the background, might climb on the bandwagon.
That 15 billion gallons of pop annually boils down to 585 cans for each and every American, and much of it is laced with caffeine. Collectively, we probably get as much caffeine from soft drinks as we do from coffee and tea combined. No wonder we're always all a'jitter.
At Johns Hopkins, a researcher who's wondering if all of this is good for us also questions whether the time has come for those who mix the caffeine with the syrup that goes into cans and bottles to come out of denial about the role of the stuff that keeps us awake when we drink their products.
Maybe you saw the story in the press last week, but if you didn't: Dr. Richard Griffiths, who has spent 15 years studying the behavioral effects of caffeine, had the audacity to question the beverage makers' claims that they put the stuff in our pop not as a stimulus to get us hooked but because we demand the hint of bitterness caffeine provides.
What prompted Dr. Griffiths to question the motives of the beverage bottlers and canners? He conducted a miniature survey of those who drink colas to determine whether they could taste caffeine at levels comparable to what's found in an ordinary Coke or Pepsi. Well less than 10 percent could.
And this has got the beverage industry jumping around as if each just consumed a gallon of their caffeine-laced juice. One who spoke for the National Soft Drink Association strongly hinted that Dr. Griffiths publishing his findings in the Archives of Family Medicine is an exercise in scientific self-promotion, implying the survey was fatally flawed and professionally irresponsible.
What You Don't Know
Of course, no mention was made that the industry is fighting a plea made by Griffiths three years ago to the feds to have food and drink makers add caffeine content to the labels of all the stuff we buy.
Hey, who in businesses selling something containing an ingredient that perpetuates addiction to their product would want to let consumers know what they were doing? Even Big Tobacco told us it wouldn't stoop to such a level.
If we consumers knew how much caffeine we were drinking in a can of pop, we might switch to a caffeine-free variety. Then we'd sleep more, but when sleeping we wouldn't be sipping (and buying) those drinks. Once off the caffeine kick, we wouldn't be hankering as badly for a fix via another can of the stuff.
The industry, which adds caffeine to more than 70 percent of its soft drinks, claims it does so to impart a subtle bitterness preferred by consumers. But Dr. Griffiths found that of 25 sippers, only two could distinguish which drinks had caffeine.
But this goes beyond flavor. Dr. Griffiths wrote: "They're adding a mildly addictive, mood-altering drug, one which surely accounts for the fact that people drink far more sodas with caffeine than without." He also suggested that once on the stuff, they drink more of it to avoid withdrawal symptoms such as headache, irritability and nervousness.
It's about time all of this has gone public. We all drink too much pop, and we don't need caffeine to prompt us to drink more. For some of us, the addiction is worse than for others, for caffeine tolerance levels vary among consumers.
Once I drank three carafes of regular black coffee, which figures out to about 30 cups, before noon every day of the week. Now a cup in late morning will keep me awake at night. My doctor said my tolerance level went screwy from the daily overdoses - and I recall the hell of withdrawal when I switched to decaf before just about giving up all coffee.
Beverage makers do give us a choice, caffeine-free pop or regular, also sugar-free or regular. But for someone trying to avoid both caffeine and sugar, it isn't that easy.
Try going into a fast-food joint and ask for a soft drink that has neither sugar nor caffeine. You won't find it: There's caffeine-free, sugar-free or regular. Same in nearly all restaurants, even in many convenience stores. Caffeine-free, sugar-free combos are the exception - even in most vending machines. You've got a choice: Too much sugar, too much caffeine, or too much of both. Rarely none of both. A healthy choice isn't easy to find.
The industry tells us it's taste, nothing to do with marketing.
Which reminds me of a few marketing ploys I noticed years ago when in television and radio I was sponsored by three different breweries at various times.
Beer reps would conduct taste tests: their product against a competitor's outdated brew that had been exposed to higher than room temperature for a long time. The winner was obvious, though in legitimate tests, when testing properly stored and chilled brews were compared, half or more testers couldn't distinguish an inexpensive brand from their usual premium drink.
The worst I encountered was nearly 30 years ago when my then-sponsor, old American Brewery of Baltimore, made a big promotional effort to regain sales at baseball and football games in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Another very popular national brew had pretty much of a monopoly there and intended to keep it that way.
And it did, but not by taste. Vendors were encouraged verbally and probably financially to have older battered and blemished cans of American visible on ice and competing with the shiny cans of the national brew, and the results were obvious. When marketing is involved, it's who can get away with what - even in soda pop.