Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Sweet Counterblast

One of the notable features of the small town where I grew up was the local soft drinks factory. Thanks in part to the Temperance movement, many small towns in Scotland and Wales had independent producers  and ours was a gem. Tucked away in a cobbled side street in an old stone building, it had a small and spartan shop - just a table and a few shelves of bottles - where you brought your wooden crate of empties to replace them with full bottles of lemonade or swapped your finished soda syphon for a fresh one.

Half a century on, the local factory is long gone and, in the supermarket which now stands on the site, the shelves groan under the weight of soda cans and two-litre plastic bottles, but more has been lost than the parochial simplicity and the clink of glass. Thanks to the sugar tax, it is now frustratingly difficult to find lemonade or other fizzy drinks in which the only sweetness comes from natural sugars. For all the outward show of choice - a bewildering variety of flavours where we once swithered between lemonade, orangeade or cream soda - the options are few and far between for the shopper who wants to avoid artificial sweeteners.

The result of this, according to various smug reports, has been a reduction in childhood obesity, although one might argue that it is impossible to ascertain the exact effect in such a complicated area and numerous studies suggest that, in the long term, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked to health problems including weight gain. The NHS has jumped firmly (and predictably) on the bandwagon, advocating the selection of ‘lower sugar’ and ‘lower fat’ snacks, desserts and drinks where possible*.

It’s a classic ‘nudge’ situation, using price, availability and persuasion to change consumers’ behaviour, with a hefty dose of Nanny-knows-best thrown in, but the vast increase in what we in the Tavern refer to as SOSS (Sod Off Sans Sugar) and FOFF (Fuck Off Fat-Free) products is drastically reducing the choice available for those who prefer their food and drink to be free from lab-manufactured additives (or to avoid the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners).

While larger companies have generally gone down the route of using artificial sweeteners rather than passing on the tax to customers in the form of higher prices, one avenue still remains open for those trying to avoid them; at present, small producers whose annual fizzy drink output is less than a million litres a year are exempt from the sugar tax. Their products tend to be found only in local bars or farm and village shops but they represent a tradition well worth preserving as well as a pleasing way to exercise individual choice and fight back against the nudge and I urge you to seek them out where possible.

*Its ‘healthy living’ web page recommends replacing chocolate (ingredients, at least before the ‘nudgers’ got there with the vegetable fats and emulsifiers: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla) with ‘a lower calorie hot instant chocolate drink’ (ingredients: Whey Powder, Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Skimmed Cows' Milk Powder, Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Coconut Oil, Polydextrose, Thickener:Guar Gum, Carrageenan:, Salt, Maltodextrin, Milk Protein Concentrate, Flavouring, Sweetener:Sucralose:, Anti-caking Agent:Silicon Dioxide:, Stabiliser:Potassium Phosphate.)


  1. It's possible to tell from the ingredients that the NHS ‘lower calorie hot instant chocolate drink’ will be sweet and insipid in spite of that delicious silicon dioxide and potassium phosphate.

    It appears to be 'ultra processed' too. Oh dear.

    1. You or I might find it ‘sweet and insipid’ but I wonder whether a generation reared on artificial sweeteners will become so accustomed the the heightened sweetness that they would prefer them to natural sugars - certainly that appears to be the case with the Coke and Pepsi diet versions.

  2. I'll carry on reading when I've (real!) buttered the toasted white bread for my streaky bacon sandwich. And yes, in the meantime, they can 4cough.

    1. In this brave new world, that marks you out as a heretic, at least in some circles.

      Sadly, it’s been going on for a while.Many years ago, a friend and I unsuccessfully requested that full-cream milk and diluted fruit juice be served at our children’s playgroup. From the horrified reaction of some parents at the AGM, you’d assume we were aspiring mass poisoners; the result of the vote was minuted as ‘ It was decided that skimmed milk and sugar-free squash are best for our children’ and some mothers never spoke to us again.

      I hope it was a good sandwich!

  3. When I wor a lad in an isolated Scottish town we had a local lemonade maker. Their Kola, Lemonade, Ginger was bottled in one pint and quart returnable, 2d, internal thread "screw capped" bottles, which became the generic name for such bottles of refreshment - A Screw-Tap.
    They also bottled Guinness and some other beers in similar sized bottles. Saved shipping the heavy bottles long distances.The Guinness was good.
    The bakelite type black screw caps were far more durable than the bottles, and for many years after the black caps, often with cream coloured dealing ring could be found on beaches.

    1. You had Kola and ginger? There’s exotic! Lemon orange or cream soda for us - unless you went to the co-op for Irn Bru.

      Funny, isn’t it, that back when we were wrecking the environment and all, at least according to JSO/XR etc, our fizzy drinks travelled a handful of miles and the bottles were almost always re-used. Where I lived, the dairy was a few doors along from the lemonade factory - also minimal travel and reusable glass bottles - and bread came in paper wrappers (I’d almost forgotten pan loaves) from the bakery at the end of the street.

      Carbon footprint, anyone?


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