Food Writer's Diary

Americans look to beverages' healthful attributes

When it comes to eating, it’s a well-established rule that good taste trumps good nutrition, almost all the time. It’s true that a growing number of Americans will lean toward eating something that seems to be better for them as long as it’s delicious, but it has to be delicious first.

That’s not necessarily true with drinks. We Americans might be loath to eat our medicine, but we seem O.K. about drinking it, whether it’s vaguely life-sustaining antioxidants, restorative electrolytes, oddly named probiotics, or fast-acting energy boosters. I think that’s why salty, weird-tasting sports drinks remain popular even as carbonated beverage sales continue to decline, and why sales of energy drinks are booming despite the fact that many of them taste like sweetened battery acid.

The last time I checked statistics for sales of ready-to-drink tea in the United States, 40 percent of it was green tea.

You can’t tell me that most Americans actually like the subtly bitter, grassy taste of green tea. Besides, most bottled green tea is sweetened (these days often with cane sugar or agave nectar) and mixed with enough fruit flavoring that you’d have no way of knowing there might also be some tea in there somewhere.

But if we don’t necessarily embrace the flavor of green tea, we certainly seem to like the idea of it and all its antioxidants — and, I suspect, the fact that it comes from the exotic Far East, where, for some reason, we think everything they eat is good for you.

With the exception of the explosion of smoothies everywhere, from hotel brunch menus to McDonald’s, restaurants are really just in the early stages of capitalizing on the drink-as-health-tonic trend.

Some furtive experiments have been made to sell branded energy drinks, but from what I’ve heard they’ve generally been drunk more by staff than customers.

Starbucks has finally introduced its own line of energy drinks called Refreshers. They’re sparkling beverages boosted with caffeine-charged green coffee extract that the chain’s web site promises “looks and tastes nothing like coffee,” as well as ginseng and B and C vitamins.

Aaron Jourden, an editor with foodservice research firm Technomic’s information services, whom I interviewed for a story I wrote earlier this month on cold drinks, pointed out that both Honey Dew Donuts and Sheetz were spiking some of their beverages with branded energy drinks, and that 7-Eleven now has Big Energy Coffee, which has no sugar, but does have ginseng, gingko and vitamins.

I also interviewed Regan Jasper, the director of hospitality and beverage for Fox Restaurant Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. For Fox’s True Food Kitchen, a four-unit concept with food based on the anti-inflammatory diet of Andrew Weil, he developed an energy drink called the Medicine Man.

To make the drink he steeps 10 black teabags in a teapot for about an hour to make a dark, bitter caffeine extract.

He mixes two ounces of that with pomegranate juice and cranberry juice, both of which are supposed to be anti-inflammatory; muddled blueberries that are reported to have anti-aging qualities as well as being awesome for your prostate; and extract of sea buckthorn, a favorite ingredient of Dr. Weill’s despite its medicinal taste and extreme sourness. Jasper tells me that if you sweeten sea buckthorn extract with agave nectar, it takes on a flavor reminiscent of peach or apricot.

That concoction is topped with soda water and sold for $6 for a 16-ounce glass. It’s the restaurant’s most popular beverage, a clear indication that drinks-as-medicine is a trend with legs.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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