Dear Scratch Burrito: WTF is with your sweetener policy?

There’s this thing I have begun encountering in a certain sort of restaurant. It’s not a good thing. I first ran across this policy at a place I used to eat in Bend, OR, and it happened again tonight at Scratch Burrito here in Denver.

I went in, ordered a burrito bowl and an iced tea. Paid, found a table, went to the drink station and got my tea. Looked around and couldn’t find any sweetener. So I go back to the counter. Would you like regular sugar or agave, the guy asks. No, no, I need artificial, I reply – Sweet-n-Low, if you have it? Sorry sir, we only have natural sweeteners.

I let the tension build for a couple seconds. Turns out “nobody ever asked for it before.” Hunh.

You do understand, I finally said, that some of your customers have diabetes, right? Which got me a look of extreme discomfort and an apology, but obviously no artificial sweetener. So I took the agave.

Now, before I go on, I want to make something clear. My diabetes is well controlled and this wasn’t a matter of life and death for me. I probably inflict worse damage on myself than a couple teaspoons of agave several times a week. So I’m not trying to play martyr here.

However, for a lot of diabetics, this actually is a big deal. For me it’s a matter of principle (to say nothing of my professional curiosity over what strikes me as extremely bad business), but for others there are legitimate health implications.

The irony is that I was in Scratch because of health concerns. Earlier this week my new diabetes specialist laid the smack down on me re: carbs and we, ummm, agreed that I’d steer well clear of them in all their forms, as best I could, until I drop 10-15 pounds. Then we’ll adjust. His goal – and mine – is to get me completely off the medication through diet and exercise, and I have to be honest, living a longer, healthier life has a certain appeal to it.

My buddy Greg told me about Scratch and insisted that their food is both incredibly tasty and incredibly healthy. Get a burrito bowl – no tortilla – and you have a meal your doctor would serve you himself.

So I’m sitting there eating, trying to figure out the whole sweetener thing. At the place in Bend, given the whole menu and vaguely upscale hippie vibe, my working assumption was that the ban on artificial sweeteners was all about exorcizing evil carcinogenic chemicals. They not only wanted their customers to eat and drink healthier, I’m guessing, they were going to make sure of it.

I figured that’s what was happening here, too. But then I realized, no, wait. If paternalistic health-nazi was the agenda, then that drink fountain wouldn’t be serving Coke, would it? You know, Coke, made with high fructose corn syrup, the devil’s sweetener, perhaps the most unhealthy sludge this side of your nearest superfund site?

Not only that, the place serves beer (as did the restaurant in Oregon), and as much as I fucking love good local micro, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s health food.

So what gives? If they’re trying to make me eat healthier whether I like it or not, then the hypocrisy is off the charts. As for the “nobody ever asked for it” line, I’ll allow that this is theoretically possible if you’ll allow me, a guy who has studied the habits of zillions of diners in more restaurants than I can count, to be a little skeptical.

And if it’s neither of those things, then what is it? Can’t be a cost issue, I wouldn’t think. Never heard of anybody with especially strong religious objections to artificial sweetener. I really am at a loss.

In sum, I ask two things of the good folks at Scratch Burrito. First, as a courtesy to your customers who are waging a serious battle against sugar, could you please make an artificial alternative available? And second, can you please let me know what’s at the root of this policy? The curiosity is killing me.

PS: Greg was right. The food was really good. I imagine I’ll be going back to Scratch Burrito soon, despite my obvious annoyance over the, well, you know.


  • I have encountered it at a number of restaurants including some that in no way are health food joints. My wife and I have taken to carrying a supply of sweet & low with us just in case.

  • Sara Robinson

    I do the same thing. Got a little packet of the pink stuff tucked into a corner of my bag at all times. (I can’t tolerate either Splenda, the yellow stuff; or Nutrasweet/aspartame, the blue stuff. So pink it must be.)

    If one is going to throw oneself onto the mercy of other people’s kitchens, one must be proactive in providing for one’s particular needs. Don’t let the idiots govern your choices here.

    As long as you’re doing all this: My favorite soft drink is 7-Up, but the diet version is a) hard to find and b) made with Nutrasweet anyway, so there’s no point. So I order a soda water with a slice each of lemon and lime. I squeeze both into the water, stir them in, and then add a packet of pink stuff to it. (Beware: it fizzes big, like the Mentos-in-Coke thing, so make sure the glass isn’t full all the way to the top.) The result is a very fresh 7-Upish lemon-lime soft drink, sweetened with my preferred artificial sweetener.

    • Great advice, Sara. I’m not diabetic yet, and I am trying hard not to get there, but both my parents were (dad) and are (mom), so I have a very good shot at it. My mom does the same thing – carries a sort of little travel pack thingy (with a few packets of the blue stuff, her fave) with her. Makes life simpler, as you know….

  • Sara Robinson

    It’s definitely a failure on the part of the restaurant, but it’s not something they’re likely to fix while you’re sitting there waiting. Complain — and bring your own.

  • I dont want to be even more obnoxious than usual, but just don’t use sweetener. Years ago I was a big sugar in coffee, sugar in tea guy, then one day I decided to stop and Voila! I don’t even miss it. Same thing with salting your food. Is it possible your taste for artificial sweetener is habit, as mine was?

  • I developed a taste for water. Aquafina is the best, but tap will do in a pinch. It’s way cheaper. Fountain drinks are two bucks I don’t need to spend, and coffee and tea are just vehicles for caffeine, which I don’t need anymore. Withdrawal is a headache, but brief. The price of water itself may go up in the future, seven billion people etc. We can use it responsibly, and collectively, there is enough for everybody. End passive-aggressive rant. (aside: Otherwise is right, Black coffee has its own charm, as does unsweet tea.)

    • By the way, Joshua, Aquafina is tap water, it’s just been filtered a few more times. Bottled water is another thing I’ve mostly given up, primarily because of the impact of the plastic waste, but also because I figure the plastic is probably as bad for me as any pathogens in the water. Anyway, I scuba dive and do triathlons, so it’s not like I have something against polluted water. 🙂

  • Dang, how can it be that I agree with Otherwise? Sam, you’re Southern roots are your problem here, forget the sweet tea, just go black, or would it be brown?

  • Kevin Bradberry

    Mom told me artificial sweeteners make you crave the real thing because your brain is missing the sugar that your tongue told it was on the way.

  • Okay, let’s clarify. As an aside, I do not like unsweetened tea. Period. The issue here isn’t hey Sam drink water or unsweetened tea. THE ISSUE IS THAT THIS IS UP TO ME, NOT A FUCKING RESTAURANT.

    • OK! Chill! You’re right, a good restaurant should serve the customers.

    • I love iced tea. My doctor told me it exacerbates a medical condition, so I quit drinking it. What I suggested was only what any reasonable adult would do. Shouting back that you don’t drink unsweetened tea is puerile.

      Anyway, your assertion “THIS IS UP TO ME” is bullshit. Obviously the choice is up to the restaraunt. You think it SHOULD be up to you, but it’s not, now is it?

      And, since you’re going to be a weenie about it, why in the world do you think it should be up to you? If I go to a Mexican restaurant, I think it reasonable to expect they would serve a mole, but there are hundreds of mole recipes. I don’t think I can reasonably expect them to serve my preference in mole, or my brand of hot sauce. Even if I had a medical reason for prefering one mole to another, I don’t know why I should expect them to accomodate it any more than I would automatically expect a restaurant to offer gluten free, vegan, a nut-free kitchen, kosher, halal, etc.

      The restaurant serves a sweetener. You don’t like what they serve. Tough.

      • Fine. You like markets, so let’s do it this way. Restaurants that don’t serve what I like don’t get my business.

        How’s dat?

      • EXACTLY. Complain to them, then if you don’t the desired result, withdraw your business. Although this has little to do with markets, for reasons I won’t bother to explain.

        You still sounds a little petulant though.

        Sweetener? We’re talking sweetener?


      • It’s about principle. That’s probably where I lost you.

  • LOL.

    Oh. No wonder I didnt get it.

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