It's Dr Pepper Time!

As least for those bootlegging the sugar-sweetened stuff out of Dublin, Texas

Pretty Peggy Pepper contestants are high school seniors who compete in sportswear and evening gowns as well as in onstage interviews. The judges consider each contestant's grades in school as well as her charm and appearance. The winner gets to wear the Pretty Peggy Pepper outfit, which looks like a majorette's uniform, while representing Dublin Dr Pepper at fairs, parades and the 10-2-4 Dr Pepper Collector's Club Convention.

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At McCain's Market, a hip sandwich shop and food store on Heights Boulevard in Houston, I found a bottle of Dublin Dr Pepper in the drink case right beside the trendy Jones Soda. The little 8-ounce bottle of Dublin DP cost me $1.15 plus tax. I drank it in the parking lot.

The rush of cane sugar flavor brought back memories. The image of empty pop bottles rattling around in a bicycle basket flickered across my mind. I chuckled as I recalled riding around on my bike gathering empties for the two-cent deposit when I was 9 years old. When I had enough, I'd buy a soda and chug-a-lug it on the front step of the Dickie-Lou convenience store. A soda was a rare treat in those days. We didn't drink it at home.

Lori Dodd runs the Dublin Dr Pepper museum which sells official "Dublin Dr Pepper Bootlegger" T-shirts.
Rob Walsh
Lori Dodd runs the Dublin Dr Pepper museum which sells official "Dublin Dr Pepper Bootlegger" T-shirts.
The Dr Pepper plant in Dublin, the oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant in existence, uses sugar cane instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
Rob Walsh
The Dr Pepper plant in Dublin, the oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant in existence, uses sugar cane instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
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Look around the natural food stores these days, and you'd think soda made with cane sugar was health food. In the last few years, organic food experts have started encouraging enlightened consumers to avoid chemically processed high-fructose corn syrup in favor of natural sugars. Whole Foods and Central Market both sell sodas made with fruit flavors and cane sugar under their own labels.

The backlash against high-fructose corn syrup seems to be gaining momentum lately. HFCS was patented by a Japanese scientist in 1971. It gained quick acceptance in the American processed-food industry because it solved a lot of political problems. Price protections on domestic sugar had raised the cost of the nation's most common sweetener. Meanwhile, farm subsidies had created a persistent glut of corn.

HFCS was substantially cheaper than sugar and a gold mine for Midwestern corn farmers and agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. It fit right in with our corn-centric system of agriculture and quickly replaced sugar in a staggering variety of processed foods.

HFCS first became suspect in some circles following the "Surgeon General's 2001 Report on Obesity." An article published by two scientists in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April 2004 compared the data for the increase in obesity with data for the rise in consumption of HFCS and pointed out the amazing correlation between the two. A book called Fat Land by Greg Critser also linked high-fructose corn syrup with America's weight problem.

Critser and others pointed out that since bottlers began replacing sugar with cheaper high-fructose corn syrup starting around 1980, the price of soft drinks has dropped by about one-third. And in the same period, per capita consumption of soft drinks has increased by around 40 percent.

Beverage-industry analysts argue that the difference in cost between HFCS and sugar has little to do with sales growth. But whether the flood of cheap soft drinks over the last 30 years is a result of cheaper sweetener, cheaper plastic packaging or the marketing concept known as "supersizing," everyone agrees that the spike in soft drink consumption is a major cause of the rise in obesity.

Some scientists have advanced the premise that the body processes HFCS differently from the way it does regular sugar and that the highly processed sweetener should be avoided altogether. Natural foods experts recommend against it because it is a highly processed food that doesn't occur in nature. Other nutritionists argue that sugar and HFCS are equally bad for you. The scientific controversy is still being debated.

Thoughtful food writers, such as Michael Pollan, argue that it doesn't matter if HFCS is actually worse than sugar. There are lots of other good reasons to avoid it. Chief among them is voting with your consumer dollars against the overproduction of corn, which is taking over our diet and our entire system of agriculture. Pollan also condemns the labeling of products containing HFCS as "all-natural."

Since the anti-HFCS backlash began, demand for Dublin Dr Pepper has surged. Articles in newspapers began to mention it, along with Mexican Coke and Jones Soda, as an alternative soft drink for people trying to avoid HFCS. On a philosophical level, I am all in favor of avoiding HFCS. It's just that I'm not willing to stop dipping my fries in ketchup or pass on a smoked brisket sandwich because there might be HFCS in the barbecue sauce. Like Bobette Riner, I am ready to forgo sodas containing HFCS in favor of those made with pure cane sugar because I like the flavor better anyway.

But I am not even sure that cane sugar is inherently better tasting than HFCS.

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On a recent Tuesday, just before lunchtime, I stood in the hall of my newspaper's office handing out Styrofoam cups of Dr Pepper. Each passerby who agreed to participate in my taste test took a cup marked "A" and one marked "B." One was filled with a sample of regular Dr Pepper with HFCS and the other was filled with Dublin Dr Pepper. I asked each taster which one they preferred and why. And then I asked their age.

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