Food Fright, Part 12

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 5:20 pm
Food Fright Part 12

Shawn brought this one home from the store a few weeks ago, and I’ve been wrestling with how to present it ever since.

Most of you will recall the heyday of TaB, the diet beverage put out by the Coca Cola Company that rose to ascendancy in the early 1960s. Originally sweetened with cyclamate which was banned by the FDA in 1973, Coke switched to saccharin, which was subsequently found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Today TaB is sweetened with a combination of saccharin and aspartame.

I would have thought that we were approaching the sunset years of the functional beverage craze. Now that every other person in a given public space is no longer pulling on a SoBe, it seemed as though we Americans were getting back to enjoying sugary beverages for the tooth-rotting junk food that they are; drawing energy from their mind-blowing levels of refined sucrose, instead of trace amounts of taurine, guarana or chromine picolinate.

But a new breed of specialty soda seems to have surfaced. This may be pure speculation on my part, but it seems to me that these new drinks are less about “health” (or perhaps more more accurately, “wellness”, that twilight region between science and shamanism that offers such fertile soil for marketers) and more about “energy” (perhaps more accurately defined by the term “hyperactivity”). Red Bull is kind of the aging patiarch of this market, first appearing on American shelves in 1997 (unless you want to count Jolt Cola, which with its slogan of “All the Sugar and Twice the Caffeine!” was to my mind a more honestly marketed product but not really an “energy drink” in the commercial sense of the term. Is confectioner’s sugar an “energy powder”?). Mountain Dew is now offering MDX, a beverage whose truly disturbing TV ad campaign—featuring a host of CG-altered nocturnal animals singing along to Lionel Richie’s All Night Long—offers the tagline: “Be Nocturnal”. The subtext: stay amped up all night on our sugary swill! (in fact, Mountain Dew’s other successful spin-off beverage is called “Amp“.) And of course there’s the venerable, awfully-named Bawls, a drink so leveraged towards the ADHD demographic that the parent company has been known to sponsor LAN parties.

Somewhere after the turn of the milennium the producers of energy drinks began to take notice of a hole in their product line: what of those who wanted the zippy rush of largely-undertested stimulants but were for one reason or another unwilling or unable to tolerate the overadundance of that most common of stimulants, sugar? (One of the things I find so amazingly, endearingly fucked-up about our society is that half of us are worried about our Multiple Chemical Sensitivity while the other half is so overloaded with chemical stimulants that an 8 ounce beverage containing 32 grams of sugar is not sufficient to move our down around without throwing some other uppers into the mix. For reference: 100 mililieters of water can hold up to 179.2 grams of sucrose [table sugar] before becoming saturated. At that ratio, that can of MDX is 67 percent staurated with sugar. I’m sure they would have preferred to hike it up to 100 percent, but hey, that artifical color’s gotta be squeezed in there somewhere).

Hence the emergence of the diet energy drink, a concoction sufficiently bizarre and self-contradictory as to hold its own on the field of honor against non-alcoholic beer and vegetarian corn dogs.

I think the first sign of this coming hydropocalypse would have been the arrival of Propel Fitness Water, a product of the Gatorade company. Though not technically an “energy drink”, Propel is marketed as a performance-maintaining beverage for active people who don’t want the extra sugar that comes from chugging Gatorade. Sweetened with acesulfame K, it basically provides a lighter alternative to the chilled-sweat-and-urine goodness of Gatorade, without the sugar. In other words, it’s closer than ever to a bottle of water with a high-tech cap….for $1.39.

At this point, pretty much every big-box energy drink comes in a sugar-free formulation, and every major beverage manufacturer has one or four or twelve different products out on the market to fullfill perceived public need for specially-tainted water. The Coca Cola Company already offers a number of items in the genre, including Diet Rockstar, Full Throttle Sugar Free and Vault Zero. Where, one might ask, in this paralyzingly plentiful panoply of power-producing potential purgatives is the special evolutionary niche for a product like TaB Energy Drink? (You do remember that TaB Energy Drink was purportedly the topic of this missive, don’t you? More to the point, do I? Well, now I do….)

This dinky 10.5 fluid ounce (why 10.5? Is there something wrong with 10? It’s not as though 10.5 fluid ounces equals some more sensible number in milileters or something [311, in case you’re curious]. Better yet, why not make it eleven fluid ounces? That way, when people ask why TaB Energy Drink comes in a can .5 fluid ounces larger than a can of, oh, say, XCyto, the rep from Coke can reply, “Yes, but this one goes to eleven.”) can contains a mixture of all the usual culprits, plus taurine, ginseng and guarana, as well as regular old garden-variety caffeine. It is sweetened with a mixture of acesulfame K and sucralose, aka Splenda, which presumably helps to offset the tongue-out-ripping aftertaste one usually associates with beverages sweetened with saccharin.

I say “presumably”, because I have not tasted this product, I will not taste this product, and in fact the only way this product will ever get past my lips will be if it crawls into my mouth whilst I sleep. For I despise the so-called “flavor” of TaB, and refuse to subject myself to any derivative works thereof.

To fully describe my take on this most vile of coloid substances, allow me to relate a personal anecdote:

When I was fifteen or sixteen, deep in my punk phase (I still have a few random dots of black pigment on dorsal surface of the first joint of my left thumb that are all that’s left of the Dead Kennedys logo I tattooed there at the time) and almost criminally devoid of the faculty of forethought, I was getting ready to attend a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the University of Hawaii when I realized that I did not have a squirt gun to use during the storm sequence (and for self-defense uring the rest of the show). The squirt gun was intened to do double-duty for me, as I also wanted to get drunk during the film but had not had time to buy any easily-portable/concealable alcohol to carry on my person. I figured I could just fill the squirt gun with the contents of one or another liquor bottles in my parents’ collection and kill two birds with one stone….or at least get the two birds severely pickled. If anyone at the show complained about getting hosed down with hooch, well, that would be compelling impetus for them to avoid squirting me, now, wouldn’t it?

Casting about, I found a geriatric spray bottle of Ortho insecticide in the tool shed. Reasoning that if I washed it out carefully there probably would be insufficient organophosphates left in the bottle to cause me to start SLUDing in the middle of the second reel, I rinsed it out real good. Now that I was working with such a large-capacity reservoir, I decided I could afford to go extra swanky and fill the thing with a mixed drink, rather than simple booze. I chose a rum and coke, filling the former bottle of nerve agent with a mixture of approximately one-third Myers’s Rum and two-thirds Cragmont cola.

By the time I got to the tiny, packed theater in the bowels of University’s Manoa Gardens Ballroom, the mixture of lukewarm effervescent store-brand cola and cheap rum had drawn what was left of the insecticide out of the polyethelyne walls of the spray bottle. The resulting witches’ brew of toxins had a piquant, chromosome-unwinding flavor suspiciously reminiscent of TaB. Well, once was enough for me, thank you.

Personal preferences aside, what I can’t seem for the life of me to figure out is what place in the grand scheme of diet energy drinks this product is supposed to fill. I mean, I can accept the idea that sufficient numbers of consumers like the (shudder) taste of TaB to keep Coca Cola from culling the brand from its product line. But just what engendered the genesis of a specialty functional beverage offshoot of same? For precisely whom is this stuff intended? “Oh, if only there were an arificially-sweetened soda-like compound with all the yummy roach-spray goodness of TaB, only blessed with an additional payload of faddish dietary supplements!” When I try to picture this particular consumer demographic in its natural environment, all I get is a hazy mental image of a three-hundred-pound person in a grungy sweatsuit, straining against gravity on an Ab Roller in a living room littered with empty Tab Energy Drink cans and tattered Hostess Ho Hos wrappers. Someone straining ineffectually along two distinct, tragically contraindicated paths. Much like the concept of the beverage itself.

Rather than confirm the obvious—that this shit tastes awful—I think I will instead place it in my display of novel beverages, between the Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale and my can of Pocari Sweat. I think it’s likely that this particular beverage will serve me better on the shelf than in myself. 😛

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