'Kids today..." That's the tagline for my great-aunt Gladys. She's 75 and full of energetic complaint. Not a visit goes by when she doesn't train her sights on "kids today." "Are too lazy; watch too much TV; dress like slobs; dress like harlots; don't show respect" -- you get the idea. So imagine my surprise when I caught myself murmuring "kids today" last Saturday, as I drove away from a local lemonade stand. In my hand was a halfheartedly filled cup, and what was inside was watery, too sweet, and clearly prepackaged. And it had run me $.75 . When I was a kid with a lemonade stand, I made sure I squeezed some lemons and made real lemonade. The customer wasn't just paying for my time behind the counter; the customer was paying for honest materials and honest labor -- lemons and sugar, water and ice, slicing, squeezing, mixing, chilling. "It wouldn't be so bad if the stuff at least tasted good," I complained to Patrick. "What's a kid to do?" he replied. "Not everyone has a lemon tree in their back yard." That set me off on a jag. I spent the rest of the day scooping up powdered lemonade mixes. Surely modern science had advanced to the point of giving the world powdered lemonade that tasted something like the real thing?
We wound up with three categories: sugar-free, sugar-in, and sugar-needed (to which you add your own). We started with the sugar-free, afraid we wouldn't be able to taste them otherwise. Candidate one, Vons Lemonade Lite ( $3.05 for 3.2 oz.; makes 12 quarts), veered toward the Lite end of things. "There's no acid," grumbled Patrick. "Maybe a little zing up front, but no acid in the middle or back of the palate. None of that lemon tartness you want in a cool, refreshing drink. Up front, it tastes like a lemon drop, but then it fades away." Wyler's Light Lemonade ( $4.29 at Vons for 3.13 oz.; makes 12 quarts) had a yellowy, cloudy look to it that hinted at more body. "It does have more middle-palate tartness," agreed Patrick. "But it's too sweet, and still doesn't have real acid." Crystal Light ( $3.00 at Vons for 2.1 oz.; makes 8 quarts) proved the clear winner in the category. "You can actually smell lemon in this one," I marveled. "And it's got a little of that puckering effect that real lemonade has," added Patrick. "I like my lemonade to hurt, and this does the trick."
Round two: both the Vons Lemonade drink mix ( $3.29 for 20 oz.; makes 8 quarts) and the Country Time Lemonade ( $4.46 at Vons for 19 oz.; makes 8 quarts) featured sugar and fructose in their ingredient lists -- though Country Time's label boasted that it contained 40 percent less sugar than the leading soda. Both had a decent acidic bite, but neither tasted much like lemons. The Country Time fared a shade better in the density department. Patrick was saddened -- his memory of Country Time had been tarnished. But he was cheered by our next entry: À La Source Organic Lemonade mix ( $5.39 at Whole Foods for 20 oz.; makes 5 quarts) came the closest to mimicking the real deal. "It's granular, as opposed to powdered," noticed Patrick. "And it's sweetened with cane juice." Besides delivering the most lemon flavor and more pucker, À La Source offered an integrated sweetness and a real sort of body. It wasn't quite bits of pulp, but it wasn't just water, either. "Maybe it's the 'cloud' in the ingredients," guessed Patrick. "Organic corn starch, gum arabic..." Worked for me, even if it did take more mixing to get the granules to dissolve.
However much Patrick admired the granules in the À La Source, he was horrified to see a full cup of sugar granules disappear into the greenish murk of the Kool Aid Lemonade mix ( $.20 at Ralph's per .23 oz.; makes 1 quart). "But look at how small this packet is," I replied. "Maybe it's the same amount of sugar as the other people; theirs is just already added." But all that sugar didn't keep the Kool Aid from coming across as flat and watery. We got better results from the same preparation with the Drink Aid Lemonade mix ( $.20 at Ralph's for .33 oz.; makes 1 quart). More body, more pucker. "This is better than the sugar-in stuff from Vons, and the Country Time," said Patrick. In fact, it finished a close third, behind the Crystal Light, which offered more body and lemon flavor, but also a slight aftertaste.
After the tasting, Patrick and I puzzled over the various listings of "natural" and "artificial" flavors in our various powders. I called Mariano Gascon, president of the Society of Flavor Chemists, to find out a little more. "For artificial flavors," said Gascon, "it is only substantive that they are not obtained from natural products. It is not the case that natural is good and artificial is bad. They are the exact same compounds as those found in nature; they're just not obtained from a natural source. In the case of natural lemon flavor, they take the essential oil out of the lemon peel and make an extract. The oil is intense, and they add chemicals to change the flavor profile -- the oil tastes like a lemon peel instead of lemon juice. The added chemicals are the same ones that are in lemon juice. Then they turn the whole thing into a powder by making an emulsion with starches and removing the water."
Gascon continued, "In general, it is less expensive to use artificial flavoring. But in the case of lemons and oranges, we have tons of them, so it might be cheaper to get the flavor from a natural source." To some extent, "it depends on the crop and the weather," and there's the rub. "When you use an artificial flavor, you always have the same flavor. When people buy a product, they want it to always taste the same. They feel comfortable about it."