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Sweet showdown 

Sugar cane-flavored soft drinks make a comeback.

MMM, MMM: The Hop offers Coca-Cola with pure cane sugar.
  • MMM, MMM: The Hop offers Coca-Cola with pure cane sugar.

The latest trend in soft drinks is nostalgia: The desire for drinks sweetened with sugar cane, as in the old days, rather than high fructose corn syrup. Cane tastes better to some folks, and it's being marketed as better for you than corn.

Americans get 20 percent of their sugar from soft drinks. That makes soft drink production in this country an enormous industry. In the '70s soft drink makers made the switch to corn syrup because it's cheaper, it supports U.S. corn farmers and doesn't have trade tariffs like sucrose from abroad.

But sugar cane is back, mostly at privately owned businesses that sell specialty or gourmet goods. But a niche market can't be so easily defined. Take the Hop, an old-fashioned diner selling burgers, and ZaZa's, purveyor of artisan pizzas and creative salads.

The Hop, which styles itself after an old-fashioned diner, figured that selling vintage soft drinks would add to the restaurant's flair. It sells Mexican Cokes and sold vintage sodas from the New Jersey-based Boylan Bottling Co. The vintage sodas sold so poorly that owner Chris Isgrig decided to stop stocking them, but customers can't get enough of the Mexican Cokes, Sprites, and Fantas, which are also made with sugar cane.

Well, well — brand recognition at play. The Boylan Bottling Co. was founded in 1891 and pledges to provide "authentic soda-pops of a bygone era." That is, an era when the word "Coke" wasn't synonymous with "soft drink."

Boylan fares better at ZaZa, the upscale pizza restaurant in the Heights. Scott McGehee, the owner, takes pride in the fact that ZaZa offers healthy food, which is why he chose to stock Boylan beverages. They sell very well, he said, but the restaurant still serves regular Cokes. He wants his customers to have choices when it comes to their soft drinks, and he realizes that without the sticky, corn-syrupy choices of Dr. Pepper or Diet Coke, any restaurant would go out of business.

When you're at ZaZa munching on a chic pizza, a glass-bottled novelty drink just looks better, besides being the supposedly healthier option. If you get a beer there, it's probably not going to be a Miller Lite. When you're at The Hop, a Coke will do just fine, and if you happen to be a fan of cane sugar, you're in luck. In this country we like our fizzy drinks too much to care about making a statement every time we need a refreshment.

The notion that sugar cane is a healthier option is sort of a joke, unfortunately. While corn syrup is demonized as one of the big reasons for out-of-control obesity in America, especially among children, studies have shown that it's not really any worse than sucrose. The problem is the amount of soft drinks being consumed in the first place.

Mexican Coke, although you won't get it in the drink machine at McDonald's, isn't too hard to find. Besides the Hop, it's in Mexican grocery stores and River Market district stores Green Grass and 4Square.

Whether it's about health, or making a political statement, or trying to look cool with a throwback Pepsi in a glass bottle, human behavior is a complex thing to explain. But it can be simple, too. Those Cokes de Mexico sure do taste better.

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