Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slurpees & Winnipeg: A love story

Without fluoridated water, we'd be a bunch of toothless sugar junkies

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Brandon's Tyvek Egan gets one of thousands of Slurpees 7-Eleven gave away July 11 in Manitoba after Winnipeg again won the Slurpee title.


Brandon's Tyvek Egan gets one of thousands of Slurpees 7-Eleven gave away July 11 in Manitoba after Winnipeg again won the Slurpee title.

Welcome to Winnipeg, the only city on the continent where a widespread addiction to glucose syrup serves as a source of civic pride.

For the 14th straight year, this city has freely granted the 7-Eleven convenience-store chain free publicity by eagerly accepting the title of the Slurpee Capital of The World. The good folks at Sev confer this title upon the city where the highest number of Slurpees is purchased, on average, at every one of the chain's stores.

Over the years, a lot of thought has been put into the less-than-burning question of why Winnipeggers purchase and presumably drink so many Slurpees. The simple answer: We're basically just a bunch of crackheads.

We endlessly crave oral injections of glucose every few minutes just to keep our blood-sugar levels cruising high enough to place a plains bison in a diabetic coma. And one of the fastest and most economical ways to achieve this sugar high is to suck up a Slurpee, which packs 130 calories into each 473-millitre paper cup.

Given that the average adult can safely consume more than 2,000 calories a day without gaining weight, a single Slurpee is not going to kill anyone. As an occasional indulgence, the Slurpee is not much of a health hazard; there are actually fewer calories in Sev's signature beverage than there are in a Tim Hortons Iced Capp or a Starbucks Frappuccino.

Yes, Slurpee calories are empty calories. But there isn't a heck of a lot of nutritional value in a vodka tonic -- and chances are, you're going to consume more than just one alcoholic beverage.

At the same time, it is a bit bizarre to see Winnipeg celebrate its love for the Slurpee, and not just because of the gleeful willingness to incorporate a trademarked, corporate product -- available almost anywhere in North America -- into our collective, civic identity. A Slurpee is about as uniquely Manitoban as a Snickers bar or a Big Mac. But I digress.

In addition to being almost devoid of nutritional value, Slurpees are terrible for your teeth. Ordinary soda pop is nasty enough; the concentrated syrup pumped into Slurpee machines is not something you want to apply to tooth enamel for any prolonged period of time.

In other words, the celebration of our enormous appetite for Slurpees is like a public endorsement of tooth decay. Taking pride in Slurpee consumption is a lot like taking pride in nicotine or alcohol consumption: A single cigarette or beer won't kill you, but only a fool would take pride leading the world in booze or smoke purchases.

The only remotely positive thing you can derive from our collective willingness to adopt the Slurpee as a symbol of all things Winnipeg is an ironic love for all that is lame about this city. At Osborne Village's Sew Dandee, you can purchase T-shirts and scarves bearing images of Louis Riel sucking up a Slurpee. It is not by accident that James Hope Howard, creator of the brilliant Winnipeg Cat, entitled his first blog Slurpees and Murder.

You may be tempted to argue it's way better for Winnipeg to be known as Canada's Slurpee capital rather than claiming the on-again, off-again title of murder capital. But why not take pride in some of the genuinely awesome aspects of this city?

For example, Winnipeg has so far managed to avoid a particularly bizarre form of lunacy that has started to afflict other North American cities: The decision to stop adding fluoride to water.

In 2011, against the advice of every credible public-health and medical authority, the City of Calgary decided to stop fluoridating its water. The move, apparently inspired by a narrow-minded form of libertarianism, resulted in increased cases of cavities one year later, dentists in Alberta reported this past May.

Fluoride has been added to water for decades as a means of protecting children in particular from tooth decay. Fluoridation may in fact be the greatest public-health success story of the past century, eclipsing even efforts to promote the widespread availability of condoms and the campaign against drunk driving.

But fluoridation has also served as a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists, who declared it a Communist plot in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War. Anti-fluoride sentiment seemed to recede in the ensuing decades but is now back with a vengeance, with the tinfoil-hat crowd employing social media to perpetuate the 60-year-old fiction that fluoridation is a public-health threat.

At the concentrations added to North American water supplies, fluoride can at worst cause a occasional cases of fluorosis, a cosmetic discoloration of teeth. Weighed against the widespread prevention of tooth decay, especially among impoverished children unable to afford dental care, this is more than an acceptable risk.

But the anti-fluoride crazies, armed with junk science and conspiratorial zeal, engage in propagandist efforts to convince mainstream politicians they could maybe save a few dollars by cutting off the fluoride tap. This madness has succeeded even in Calgary, home to a mayor widely regarded as progressive and intelligent -- but apparently helpless to prevent bad policy decisions.

The City of Winnipeg, on the other hand, is rarely regarded as progressive, let alone a beacon of brilliant policy-making and sober second thought. Yet the lunacy of the anti-fluoridation movement has yet to infect this city council, much to the relief of Manitoba's dentists and public health officials.

Given the high rate of child poverty in this city, we can be thankful for the continued flow of fluoride ions from our taps.

There may come a day when public education and income levels rise to the point where every family can both practise and afford proper dental care and there will be no need to add fluoride to the water.

But in the meantime, we still need the damn stuff. Case in point: Just last week, for the 14th year in a row, Winnipeg was declared the Slurpee Capital of the World.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2013 A1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

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