The Sugar Tax Killed Rubicon and I'm Not OK
The best tropical fruit drink there ever was is now stuffed full of sweeteners.
Photo by Ruby Lott-Lavigna.
Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
When I walked into a chicken shop last weekend, I had no idea that my life was about to change forever.
It began like any normal Saturday night. I had been at a festival with some friends, and the time had come to stop pretending I liked Bjork and start eating. Tired, drunk, and sticky, we dragged ourselves toward the closest tube station, ending up at a fried chicken shop famed for the simple yet impressive fact that it sells a chicken burger with a hash brown in it. I was happy. A hash brown burger existed. The night was going well.
My boyfriend had ordered a Rubicon Lychee to accompany his chicken wings, a respectable choice, as lychee is one of the drink's higher-tier flavours (I am also partial to a “Guanabana” Rubicon, despite not being entirely convinced this fruit exists). Rubicon goes unusually well with cheap, salty British food, like £3.20 fry-ups or indeed, very sad-looking chicken wings. Sometimes people call me “Rubicon” instead of Ruby. This makes me happy.
Thirsty, I reached over to take a sip of the Rubicon, but the moment the cold, sugary drink hit my lips, I knew something was wrong. Instead of the tropical nectar I had grown to love to over years, this Rubicon tasted … different.
The dissonance between my eyes and taste buds confused me. I spluttered. My friends looked at me weirdly. That’s disgusting? I choked out, baffled and grimacing at the flavour.
An aftertaste of sweetener had made the can almost undrinkable. Something was terribly wrong. Then I realised, it was the bloody sugar tax.
It turns out: they’ve fucked it. The people behind iconic soft drink Rubicon, AG Barr, have forever changed the recipe of my favourite beverage to avoid a levy, introduced by the UK Government in April this year on any drink containing over 5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. This means that all regular Rubicon varieties—Mango, Guava, Passion Fruit, Pomegranate, and, yes, mysterious Guanabana—have 50 percent less sugar, and are now stuffed full of sweetener. A fake sugar taste has replaced the drink’s original fruitiness, and I am not happy.
There is a reason AG Barr didn’t make this recipe change sooner, despite artificial sweeteners generally being cheaper than sugar. Why? Because they make your drink taste shit.
I do not object, in theory, to the idea of reducing sugar consumption—a food acknowledged to contribute to obesity, and subsequently, heart disease and diabetes. I also back this kind of regulation if done correctly, as I am happy for companies (not consumers) to foot the tax bill for a better welfare system, when poverty is the real cause of obesity, not sugar.
Despite all this, and the classist overtones of the UK sugar tax, my main problem with the reformulated Rubicon is far more petty: if I must suffer through capitalism, then I want the small joys that come with it. I want identikit experiences that I can recreate wherever I am, in the form of branded food and drink.
If nothing else, brands exist to supply the masses with reliable, consistent stimulus. People are worn down by exploitative labour markets and manipulated into suffering for the good of a company, but the fact that the nuggets in the Leicester McDonald’s are exactly the same as the ones in Peckham makes all of us lil’ cogs in the capitalist machine feel safe and happy. This, this is what AG Barr has messed with.
If I must suffer through capitalism, then I want the small joys that come with it. I want identikit experiences that I can recreate wherever I am, in the form of branded food and drink.
We exist in an unequal, fragile economic system. I will not be able to buy a house and I constantly believe that £8 olive oil will make me happier. I toss and turn over whether I should buy some Glossier highlighter. I do not wear highlighter, but I am convinced that spending money on a shimmery balm will make me fulfilled, happier, better. Neoliberal society tricks us into believing consumerism = happiness, and if I have to deal with this turmoil then good God, I want to do it with a Rubicon. AG Barr has taken away a certainty in my life. It has betrayed my trust, and for that, I will never forgive it.
Still, I reached out to AG Barr for an explanation. It turns out that the company also owns Irn- Bru, and was essentially responsible for destroying Scottish culture in its entirety when it changed the soft drink’s recipe. When pressed about whether Rubicon had a new recipe, an AG Barr spokesperson confirmed the worst, explaining over email that the company had, “reformulated Rubicon drinks to reduce sugar.”
"For our Rubicon exotic fruit juices, we worked closely with drinkers to understand their needs and taste preferences to develop the new range with something for everyone,” they continued. “Our ‘regular’ range now contains half the sugar.”
No matter how many trial groups AG Barr ran this new recipe though, I do not believe that they managed to convince the majority of people that sweetener isn’t objectively horrible. However, all hope may not be lost. Towards the end of the AG Barr spokesperson’s statement, I spot a glimmer of hope: “We introduced Rubicon Deluxe, a richer and more indulgent product. Rubicon Deluxe has a higher sugar level than regular Rubicon, so it's more suited to special occasions.”
Let’s pour one out for the best tropical juice there ever was. Now, someone hand me a fucking Rubicon Deluxe.