Taste of travel: Irn-Bru reduces sugar and loses some local cred

What would fictional Scottish copper John Rebus think of the reformulated Scottish soda Irn-Bru — known as the “other national drink” of Scotland — with less sugar? Och!

The British government just slapped a new tax on sugar to help fight rising obesity rates. The United Kingdom — just like the United States — has a big obesity problem.

In Scotland, not everyone is happy with the change to its sugar-laden national treasure.

On a visit last fall to Scotland, I tried Irn-Bru (pronounced ‘Iron Brew’) under the original recipe. It tasted just like bubble gum, but it also was too sweet for me. My traveling companion, however, loved it.

The taste of travel

Trying local foods and drinks of other cities and countries is a one of the great joys of travel. It’s part of the experience of learning about different cultures and how people live. Many people plan trips around wine tasting, beer tours or top French restaurants.

In addition to Irn-Bru, I’ve drank fresh coconut milk from a coconut in Hawaii, tea made from plants grown on a nearby hillside in Taiwan and a hot ginger-lemon concoction that cured my ills in New Zealand.

Visitors to the United States may want to try a Slurpee, Dr Pepper soda or eggnog. They also may find that chili in Cincinnati is very different than in Texas.

In March, the maker of Irn-Bru cut sugar in the drink by more than half (to 4.7 grams per 100 milliliters) to avoid the new tax and a price hike. The reduction of sugar and the addition of the sweetener Aspartame lowered the calories in each can of soda — to about 65 from just below 140.

The UK’s obesity rates have soared so that it’s now the most overweight nation in Western Europe, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). About 27 percent of UK adults are obese.

The legend of Irn-Bru

Americans may not be too familiar with Irn-Bru, which dates to at least 1901, even though it’s exported to the United States.

Barr's Irn Bru on Falkirk Town Heritage Trail
The Town Heritage Trail in Falkirk, Scotland, features this plaque. Falkirk is the birthplace of A.G. Barr, the maker of Irn-Bru. (Mark Begbie, Wikimedia Commons)
In Scotland, Irn-Bru is so popular that it’s called the “other national drink,” after Scotch, and it frequently pops up in popular Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s crime series featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. In the books, Rebus swears Irn-Bru is the best cure for a hangover and drinks copious amounts of it.

In addition to its unique taste and high sugar content, Irn-Bru stands out for its bright orange color, its vibrant orange-and-blue labels and oft-controversial advertisements. (See my photo at top.)

Scottish Irn-Bru fans reportedly are scouring shops for the full-sugar version and stockpiling it. Some fans have made their outrage public: Ryan Allen of Ayr, Scotland, started the Hands Off Our Irn-Bru campaign, a petition to save the traditional recipe and Stephen McLeod of Glasgow started the Save Real Irn-Bru campaign to protect the nation’s iconic drink.

Will people warm to the new recipe? Perhaps.

For me, I probably should make another trip to Scotland for a taste comparison — for reporting purposes.

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