Q& A | Rusty Coco

Q&A | Rusty Coco: Working to Keep It Real In His Chain of Delis

Rusty Coco has spent years clearing his menus of harmful ingredients.
Rusty Coco has spent years clearing his menus of harmful ingredients.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In June, the Corn Refiners Association launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to make over the reputation of high-fructose corn syrup, the ubiquitous sweetener that many health advocates say has contributed to the obesity crisis in America. Rusty Coco, co-founder of Jason's Deli, wasn't impressed. For seven years, the plucky Texan has been on a crusade to eliminate such "contaminants" from the menu at the more than 200 Jason's restaurants, including one in Falls Church and one coming soon to College Park.

Yesterday, Jason's announced that, with the exception of fountain sodas, the chain had successfully rid every menu item of high-fructose corn syrup. Staff writer Jane Black talked to Coco, 57, about the challenge of serving what he calls "real, clean" food. Edited excerpts follow:

Delis aren't exactly known for their healthy food. What started your crusade?

For most of my life I've been a healthy guy; I work out about every day and am typically a vegetarian who avoids junk. Fact is, I couldn't eat in my own deli, so Jason's Deli and I decided to take a journey to clean up the menu. We first took on the nastiest, most harmful one, artificial trans fats, which took about five years. Then we moved to MSG and now successfully to high-fructose corn syrup.

Were any of the foods particularly hard to do without HFCS?

Bread. It's extremely hard to buy bread without high-fructose corn syrup. Why is there HFCS in bread? How are you going to taste the whole wheat, the grain and the rye when all you taste is sweetness? It makes no sense. At the end of the day, it's all about taste. Ice cream was tough, too.

The free soft-serve ice cream Jason's offers customers as dessert?

Yeah, the old free ice cream had a particular sweetness, but it included HFCS. The texture was tricky, too. When we replaced HFCS with real cane sugar, we got some graininess, so it took a while to get the flavor profile and the quantities right. We had to go back and forth with our supplier, but now it tastes better.

Was there anything that was easy?

Nothing was easy. HFCS is so ubiquitous that it took years to clean the deli. To find a jelly without HFCS, we had to go organic. Actually, it becomes easier when you use organics versus conventional. Plus, they taste so much better.

You still have soft drinks with corn syrup. Are you going to be able to convince Coca-Cola to change its secret recipe?

We think that soft drinks taste better with cane sugar. My question is for the beverage companies: Why is HFCS in the drinks if they taste better without? Why not go back to the way things were decades ago? I feel bad that the only products in our deli with HFCS are sodas. I hope the manufacturers join the party.

What's next?

Education. People need to become more aware through reading labels, educating themselves about the food chain and how real food is good medicine. Too much of the food industry is made up of profits that have been built by cheap ingredients. A lot of people are searching for alternatives.

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