The Soda Protocols

(One of the greatest culinary experiences of my entire life: drinking bottles of real-sugar Coke in Belize after two or three hours of hiking around.)

 

“Daddy’s magic thinking juice.” This is how I often describe the bottles and cans in my fridge, much to the confusion of friends and family.

“I didn’t know you even had kids,” they reply, cautiously. “Nor that your shame over your escalating drinking problem is so great that you choose to conceal its scale behind a code phrase.”

Well, neither thing is true. Alcohol consumption is often linked to parenthood (particularly during one’s frolicky teen years) but I only have a nodding relationship to both concepts. No, I describe my onhand inventory of soda that way because over the course of a long writing day, a glass of something fizzy and tasty helps to grease the gears of productivity. In fact, when the final deadline of a book project is less than two weeks away, my blood is about 20% phosphoric acid.

Is this a healthy habit? Oh, absolutely. I have zero back problems and have never been killed by one of those deep-vein thrombosis deals. I fix my doctor with a steely gaze and insist that it’s all thanks to my compulsive need to get up out of my chair every 45 minutes and walking to the kitchen to fix another drink.

But my powers of creativity and self-deception have limits. Back in my Twenties, I foresaw that drinking a couple of 12-packs of Coke every week was a career-limiting strategy. I instituted a new mission rule: no sugared sodas inside the house. I switched to Diet.

That was the only change I made to my Soda Protocols until recently, when I started to feel like it was time to tinker with them. Chalk it up to my entering my “long haul” years. Due to poor planning, I didn’t die in my youth with the final pages of my unpublished but soon-to-be-universally-acknowledged masterpiece crumpled in my cold hands. Onward to Plan B, then: start making choices with my longterm health in mind.

What’s the problem with my soda consumption? Is there a problem?

I’m not sure, so I’ve been playing with the variables. I switched to ginger ales and citrus flavors for a month because I was curious to see if the caffeine in my sodas was screwing me up in some way. I suffered no withdrawal symptoms (despite what years sitcom evidence predicted) and mmmmaybe I was falling asleep faster. It was an interesting data point if not a eureka result.

Okay, but what are those artificial sweeteners doing to me? “There’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems,” says the Mayo Clinic. Okey-doke! That’s good enough for me. But I was intrigued by something Alton Brown said in his podcast: he thinks artificial sweeteners are the devil because even if they have no primary ill effects on your health, they reinforce the brain’s desire for sweet-tasting things.

In any event, it was worth giving up artificial sweeteners for a while, too. As with the caffeine thing, it was as much an experiment in self-control as anything else. I try to be on guard against compulsive behavior. Am I drinking this Diet Dr. Pepper because I genuinely enjoy it, or is it just something I’ve programmed myself to pour into a glass a few times a day?

In the end, all of this experimentation has left me disappointed. I had hoped that a month after eliminating this thing or that thing, my typing speed would increase by 20% and/or I’d finally get the hang of the “wet on wet” painting techniques of your leading TV art instructors. Nope! All I got out of any of this is the reassurance that I’m not chemically or psychologically addicted to any of this stuff (okay, that’s a win) and the knowledge that in some vague way, I might be making better longterm health choices. Even if that’s true, I won’t be able to blow out the candles on my 80th birthday cake and claim that it was because I kicked Coke to the curb in all of its hoary forms.

That’s the disappointing thing about most healthy living decisions. At least when you play a video game, you shoot open a chest, a first aid kit tumbles out, you walk over it and presto! The dingus in the corner of the screen tells you that you can now afford to get shot four more times. I suspect that this is why people would rather spend hours drinking orange soda in front of a video game instead of exercising. We need a system of scorekeeping for real life, don’t we? Unless God hands me a numerical score at the end of my life to show me what I “won” by changing my drinking habits, all I have to go on is faith.

(I know: He’s a big fan of Faith. It strengthens character and also saves Him a crapload of bookkeeping.)

Well, the experiment phase is over. I’ve made three sweeping changes to my Soda Protocols:

  1. The default home beverage is now “seltzer.” Either flavored, or enhanced through the manual addition of natural lemon or lime juice. It has no caffeine and no artificial sweeteners. I actually prefer the clean taste to the vague chemical-ey notes present in even a good cola-war-battle-hardened diet soda.
  2. I have lifted the household ban on sweetened soda. The Experiment Phase proved that I’m not a compulsive drinker, so I trust myself. But! Sweetened soda is to be consumed as though it were alcohol. One small glass, perhaps once a day.
  3. Soda should be sweetened with real sugar, if at all possible. I’m letting sugared soda back into my life so that I can savor and enjoy it as a rare (-ish) treat, instead of guzzling it like water. I don’t know what to make about all of the anti-corn-syrup fuss out there. But I do know that I prefer the taste of natural sugar (it adds a peppery snap). If this it going to be a treat, let’s make it a treat, yes? I’m swapping out the diet stuff because it doesn’t taste as good as this, and I’m agreeing to drink far less of it as a tradeoff.

We seem to be living in a new Enlightened Age of real sugar colas. Pepsi seems to have made the “Throwback” flavor a regular item; on top of that, they’re promoting three new “real sugar” flavors as a summer promotion. Why the holy hell doesn’t Coke jump on the bandwagon, too? We love cane sugar-sweetened Coke so much that we’re willing to import the stuff from exotic foreign nations, such as Mexico and Costco! The fact that there isn’t a domestic variant trademarked as “Coke Refresco” proves that The Coca-Cola Company is a society in a state of chaos. The company should be annexed by a neighbor and run by a colonial governor until such time as they are once again capable of self-rule.

(It’s the humanitarian thing to do. Blackberry watched the iPhone sweep in and take over the phone market, and yet they still refuse to make phones out of real cane sugar. I’d hate to see that same sad fate befall Coca-Cola.)

On the subject of Pepsi Throwback: it was a one-off summer promotion that was so successful that Pepsi just decided to keep it around. The first time I encountered it, I bought the one remaining 12-pack of cane-sugar Dr Pepper in the store display and holy mother of God, it was some of the tastiest stuff I ever drank. This was years ago and I swear to you that every time – every time – I see a 12-pack of Throwback Pepsi, I instinctively check to see if there’s any Heritage Dr Pepper. Make it a regular damn product!

We’re Americans! The only thing we like better than sugar is a super special kind of sugar that lets us congratulate ourselves for our discerning taste and superiority!

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