Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lost in Translation: Can I have an Unsweetened Coffee?

More Family Food Tales from Recent Travels

Scene: a McDonalds inside a Wal-Mart
I almost couldn't believe my eyes, but there it was, a McDonalds inside a Wal-Mart. I felt like George Bush, Sr. seeing bar-code scanners for the first time in the 1990s.  So if you work up an appetite with your Wal-Mart low price shopping (the place was the size of an airplane hanger, after all), McDonalds is there for you.

I told my daughter that it was too early to get a happy meal (her immediate request when she saw the Golden Arches), but that she could get a small cookie. (It was 11:30am, and I was probably lying about the Happy Meal. ) I decided to try an iced coffee for myself. I was in the South, so I knew to be careful with my beverage order.
Me: Do you have unsweetened iced coffee?

Teenage clerk: Yes, we have no calorie iced coffee.
(In hindsight, this strange construction, should have alerted me.)

Me: Err, OK, I'll have that with half-n-half, no sugar.

I get the coffee, start to walk away and take a sip. Almost gag; so sweet.

Me (thinking): I can't believe this. It is undrinkable, I should just throw it away.
But I decide to say something to the clerk.

Me: I thought you said it was unsweetened? It tastes so sweet.

Clerk 1: Maybe it's the cream?
Clerk 2: Oh, it has no calorie syrup in it.
Clerk 3 (it was a slow day): That's the way all the coffee tastes.

Me: I didn't want any syrup, just coffee and milk. I can't drink this, it's too sweet. Can I just have a refund?

Manager, quickly to fore: What's the problem?

Me: Umm, I just wanted unsweetened coffee, no syrup, Is that possible?

Manager: Sure we can do that.
She gives me the unsweetened iced coffee with half-and-half. It actually tastes like good quality coffee and tastes surprisingly good after all that. Why the need to add sugary syrup, even if it is "no calorie"?

Feeling a little embarrassed now I add (lying): I'm diabetic and I just can't have anything sweet. Thank you so much.

Why did I feel compelled to say I was diabetic? Why do I have to explain that I want something without sugar? Why is wanting no sugar or black coffee "weird"? I think this speaks to the environment where "sweet" is the default and so many processed foods have hidden ingredients, often in the form of more sugar, more fat or more chemicals. You have to bend over backwards to get something un-sweet or natural in any way.

Once home, I tried to search for what McDonalds calls their "no-cal" syrup, so I can avoid it in the future and found a interesting post by Rachel of smallnotebook. No wonder plain coffee is such a foreign concept! I guess the hidden motto here is: no food stuff should be served unaltered; pump up the chemicals and sweetness as much as possible. Buyer beware, indeed!
More reading:
Fixing a World that Fosters Fat, Natasha Singer, NYT 8.22.10

McDonalds Iced Coffee Ingredient Breakdown via smallnotebook.


  1. This is so good to read. I have this trouble with cold drinks -- unsweetened ice tea does exist but can be very hard to find. Good front line research Grace! I have friends from the South who can tolerate enormously sweet things and do not enjoy unaltered foods... early training I guess.

  2. What a great post. I am constantly amazed by the general public's assumption that things won't taste good without added sugar or salt. Are we that far gone? I seriously feel like I can't buy anything pre-made anymore. *sigh*

  3. Found your post via a google search on the topic. I've had the same experience multiple times. Did you ever figure out the magic words to get what you want without confusion? It seems to really depend on who's taking the order.


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