It’s safe to say that most of us fail to observe where our food comes from. I am currently examining an empty aluminum can of Welch’s Grape Soda, which was imbibed about four hours ago and was abandoned on my desk. In tall and semi-gothic lettering, the words NEW YORK appear — as if to suggest some homestate affinity, perhaps a reason for another beverage enthusiast to slap me on the back with an avuncular gusto as we down a few cans of Welch’s. Less comforting than these words is the NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, which was somehow invisible to me when I procured the soda in questions. These words are more troublesomely legible than NEW YORK. And I ponder whether this is really a strong selling point. Turning the can on my side, I learn that I have put into my system the following ingredients:
carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, grape juice concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial grape flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), red 40, blue 1
The drink was “produced under the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.,” which I am assured is “a cooperative” based out of Concord, Maine. And yet the drink was “canned by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc.” So I’m wondering where Welch Foods’s authority left off and Pepsi-Cola’s bottling began, and I’m pondering what happened between Concord and Queens. (College Point is fairly close to LaGuardia.) There isn’t an answer on this can. We accept that some complicated process has occurred and we don’t ask questions about whether any of this is good for us.
I don’t know if I completely trust “the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” And yet I placed my trust in this authority when I decided to enjoy a can of grape soda, little realizing that I was experiencing a form of “high fructose corn syrup” that Michael Pollan has probably fulminated about somewhere. I am especially disturbed that grapes are not a part of this beverage, at least not in any direct manner. It’s all concentrate and natural and artificial grape flavors here. But what of the grapes? Did anybody inspect these? In the rush to mass produce cans of Welch’s, did someone decide to skimp out on the grapes? “The authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” may very well be an austere and ruthlessly efficient force that keeps the cans running down their tracks on time and into the ebullient hands of consumers like me, but I really want to know where the grapes come from. And this website isn’t exactly forthcoming about which grapes are used.
When I obtained the can of grape soda, I naively believed that some jolly group of vintners had smashed the grapes with their feet, that there was some natural process that permitted the grapes to ferment, and that everybody had congratulated each other on a job well done. But the truth is I know nothing about the complex machinery that put this drink together. Perhaps there was scant human intervention. I’m pretty sure that what I happily ingested was probably quite bad for me. 51 grams of sugar in one can! I mean, that’s phenomenal and it’s certainly a sign of high fructose. At least Welch’s is being clear on that point. (Of course, they have to, what with federal law and all.) But Welch’s hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much sugar this is. They have informed us, quite predictably, that the can contains 12 fluid ounces (or FL OZ for short, which suggests that one should probably floss shortly after knocking back a cold can of grape soda). In parentheses, we are informed that this amount is also 355 milliliters. But why not be forthright about what this amounts to in grams? It’s probably because 12 ounces is roughly about 340 grams. Which means that one sixth of this beverage is composed entirely of sugar! That’s more sugar than someone is likely to spoon into a cup of coffee!
I must conclude that Red 40 and Blue 1 are both forms of food coloring that are hiding some terrible truth about what these grapes have been through or how they have been sullied by the fructose and the concentrate.
There is a 1-800 number on the side of the can urging me to leave a “consumer comment.” But it’s now too late for me to call and I fear that this number exists for me and other consumes to explain to Welch’s how I feel about their beverage, perhaps in polite and enthusiastic terms. But the truth of the matter is that I have questions, not comments. And the person who would answer at this 1-800 number might panic because they didn’t have these answers at their fingertips. Or I might have to climb my way up the bureaucratic ladder to find out who does know. “Uh…grape juice concentrate. I’ll have to get approval from Bob before I can tell you what this is.”
The Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc. is based in College Point, New York. It is a place that employs 1,100 people and made $166.60 million in 2007. There are two bottling plants and six warehouses. Yahoo! Finance assures me that this is “one of the largest private bottlers in the U.S.” But it doesn’t tell me where the grapes come from.
The Welch’s website assures me that their beverages are made from dark grapes. And there is this:
These dark grapes contain flavonoids, which are a likely source of heart heath benefits. Both red wine research and purple grape juice research have shown antioxidant, anti-clotting, and arterial flexibility benefits. Many scientists believe that these properties are linked to heart health.
I am somewhat suspicious of flavonoids. They sound too much like the “electrolytes” that the futuristic population of Mike Judge’s film, Idiocracy, so passionately believed in. And while flavonoids are indeed good for you, a UC Berkeley study in 2000 revealed that high concentrations of flavonoids, particularly in supplements sold at health food stores, may assist in cancer formation. A 2007 article from Science Daily is somewhat more encouraging, pointing out that high-sugar drinks with flavonoids are still beneficial because of the flavonoids.
So many questions! But then trying to find answers is what the Internet is for. Thankfully, there are a few enthusiasts out there who care about these seemingly pedantic but alarming issues. A new blog, Food Mapping, appears determined to use topographical technology to answer these questions. It promises “a visual representation of the how, where, and why of our food.” And it has (so far) explained the effects of humans eating too much fish and has provided helpful maps for local dairies. It also led me in turn to this map of New Orleans, in which one can view an overlay of stores, restaurants, and sundry markets across the city — important questions for anyone curious (and indeed hopeful) about how this ravaged city can restore itself after Katrina.
It’s self-evident that independent experts and enthusiasts need to investigate these culinary mysteries. And perhaps with serious inquiry, we might loosen a few answers into the great mysteries we blindly accept. Perhaps there is a can of grape soda somewhere that is completely transparent about the manner it is manufactured and canned and that doesn’t use nearly as much sugar. Or perhaps drinking grape soda is an unhealthy fait accompli. One obvious solution would be to avoid grape soda. But wouldn’t it be better to know precisely what one is avoiding?