Monday, July 27, 2009

Class bias in the perception of what's healthy

Every day I hang out at a local Starbucks to get an extra shot in the arm of energy and to have a semi-peopled place to get some light reading or equation-solving done. Having gone there for a few months now, and staying roughly an hour each time, I can confidently state that I'm the only one who goes there to buy something without five pounds of sugar in it. A single shot of espresso, maybe a double if I'm going dancing that night, though every once in awhile I'll have them add a little whole milk.

The rest of the stream of upper-middle class people who cycle through are always ordering some damn thing or another that I rarely understand. That's signal number one that it's probably only a bit of coffee and a whole lot of something else. I decided to listen closer today and check out what it's actually made of (using the excellent online resource Nutrition Data). Let's see, a venti caramel mocha Frappuccino with whipped cream....

Holy shit -- 94 g net carbs, fully 79 g of that being straight up sugar! The whipped cream topping only adds another 2 g of sugar, although it more than doubles the fat. Ironically, the health-conscious people who go here would do better to get whipped cream than not -- compared to the massive amount of carbs they're already drinking in their "coffee," that from the whipped cream is only 2% more, and they get more healthy fats in return.

Let's try something without so many words in the title (each one probably standing for an additional source of sugar). How about a tall soy caramel macchiato? (I seriously do here "caramel" with almost every order.) That's much better, but still a sugar bomb at 32 g of net carbs, 28 g of which are pure sugar. And on it goes. My single espresso -- 1 g net, 0 of which is sugar.

Now, if a lower-class couch potato waddled out of a Wendy's with a large Frosty, everyone would gasp at how little the slob cared about his health -- "Yeah, that's just what you need there, another Frosty." All would lament the burden he'd inevitably put on our health care system -- "It's like he doesn't even care!" Well, how much sugar does it have? The largest size, at 16 oz, has 73 g net carbs, 56 g of which are sugar. That's only a bit more sugar than the equivalent size of a caramel mocha Frappuccino (which has 62 g net, with 53 g being sugar).

And yet, no one stops in their tracks to shoot disgusted looks to people power-walking out of Starbucks with a beverage that has roughly the same amount of soul-destroying sugar as a full-size Frosty. Obviously the reason is that people endow higher-status individuals with higher-status everything, including health choices. "Hey, if yuppies are eating it..."

(BTW, that tall caramel macchiato has as much sugar as a Snickers bar -- and who doesn't need more of those in their diet?)

Aside from drinks that are about 10 parts sugar and 1 part coffee, the other upper-middle class beverage that they don't catch any flak for, despite its insane sugar content, is smoothies. Jamba Juice is more for younger people, but there are still a fair amount of nearly middle-aged people there too. It's an upper-middle class joint in any case. Consider an original size Acai Supercharger smoothie -- I mean, it's got to be healthy if it has the most au courant antioxidant in it. Guess again: it has 85 g net carbs, all of which are sugar. Goddamn!

If those kids these days could only drink an acai smoothie with each meal, they'd only be two candy bars short of their daily recommended carb intake of 300 g.

Once more, imagine that pot-bellied guy wearing a wife-beater walking out of 7-11 sipping from a medium slurpee. "Gee buddy, way to ruin your health -- we're gonna have to pay for it, y'know!" Well that thing only has a bit more sugar (95 g) than the Acai Supercharger smoothie.

Updated: let's add tonic water to the list. Just checked my vegetarian housemate's Whole Foods brand "tonic water" -- 36 g of cane sugar per 12 oz can. Ironically he'd do better to just eat a Snickers bar and at least get some fat, protein, and fiber.

Everyone boomed with laughter when they tried to re-classify ketchup as a vegetable for the purposes of meeting health requirements for public school cafeteria slop. And so would they if our be-mulleted 7-11 patron were to defend himself by noting that the syrup tastes like a fruit. However, the smoothies that the well-to-do are so fond of are nothing better -- they also are just a few pounds of slushy sugar that tastes like fruit. The only difference is that 7-11 doesn't offer flavors like acai or goji berry or whatever the next fruit du jour will be, although I do believe I saw a mango-flavored slurpee when I went in there once -- but mango's fashionableness has been on the decline for some time now.

Now, don't misunderstand me -- I'm not trying to defend the dignity of the common slob who's gulping down a frosty or a slurpee. He should know better, given that everyone has told him since he was a small child that sugar is bad for you. If it's a treat he only has once a couple of months, OK. But not if it's frequent. The point is that higher-status people suck this sugary slop down their gullets too, yet no one hectors them about it, and no one laments the ominous direction our health care system is headed due to their poor impulse control and lack of regard for their own health.

Perhaps we should all engage in a bit of social shaming of sweet-toothed yuppies the way that we do for lower-class hogs. Next time you're in line at Starbucks (or wherever) and someone orders a glass full of sugar, give them a disgusted look while asking, "What are you, a 10 year-old girl? Take your coffee like a man. Our health care system will thank you."


  1. Starbucks' "coffee" drinks are like dressing-covered salads - calorie bombs which people think are reasonably low calorie ("But it's just a drink/salad!")


  2. I think that the problem people have with the "lower class slob" is when they're paying for his health care, food, etc. with their money via government programs or subsidies. If some rich yuppie with disposable income and health insurance wants to dig their own grave with a fork, so be it. If my taxes are being used to support someone else doing it, well then yeah, I feel free to judge that person and cast aspersions. He that pays the piper calls the tune and all that...

  3. Just caught a small typo, you have "I seriously do here," when you want "I seriously do hear."

    Keep the high carb yuppie bashing coming, it never fails to put a smile on my face.

  4. AMD, you have a serious prejudice problem. How do you know that the "lower class slob" is not paying his own way? Why would you assume some guy in a suit and tie at Starbucks is?

    In fact, AMD, why should I assume that you're paying your own way? Are you sure you're not dipping into my tax dollars somewhere? (Why, yes, even fat low class slobs pay taxes.)

  5. Great point about classism here. It's funny though, how sexism doesn't seem to bother you at all (see the final lines of your post). You may want to reconsider your attitude.

    - Feminist

  6. I think the reason we give the upper-middle-class a pass is because they are producers. Or, at least they are through the lens of modern materialism and corporatism.

    In other words, those people at Starbucks go to work every day and do their time, as it were. This is why the lower classes invoke more wrath for the same behavior; they're perceived as simultaneously failing to produce AND ruining their own health (which makes them further unable to produce).

    In short, producers get cut a bit of slack.

  7. I just started drinking coffee last year. Starbuck's mocha with whipped cream was my gateway drug.

    Then I noticed my clothes getting tighter.

    I have switched to latte with splenda. Who knew?

  8. When I decided to cut out high frutose corn syrup I started reading labels and there it was near the top of the list on yogurts and power bars "healthy foods". Corperate America is not stupid, they sell the same crap to rich and poor, just dressed up a little different. If you don't want msg or corn syrup there are only three things you can get in most convienence stores, peanuts and pretzels and water. When those well off yuppies loose thier jobs due to poor heath from our awful diets we will be paying for thier healthcare too.

  9. Agnostic, you remind me of a guy I used to go to school with... great stuff.


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