With little or no marketing of this particular Coca-Cola “brand,” Mexican-produced Coke has suddenly become all the rage in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The popularity of pop in the old-fashioned green glass bottle brings back more than just memories for those of us lucky enough to grow up in the second half of the 20th century. According to the label affixed to the bottle (presumably because of U.S. food labeling laws), Mexican Coke is manufactured with sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup.
What’s the difference? Well, most of us know what sugar is. It comes from the sugar cane plant, sugar beets and other natural sources. While it is by no means considered a “health food” and comes with its own set of dietary problems, sugar has been used to sweeten foods and drinks for centuries. We have a fairly good idea of its risks, which are spelled out clearly in the 1975 book “Sugar Blues” by William Dufty.
High-fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the sweetness scene. Basically, HFCS is a corn syrup that has undergone enzymatic processing to increase fructose amounts. It is then added to regular corn syrup so as to make it taste sweeter. The process was not developed until the 1950s, and numerous adverse health effects have been alleged. These include obesity, diabetes and liver disease. Companies who use HFCS in their products generally deny these claims.
Soft drink manufacturers say that drinks with HFCS are cheaper to produce than drinks with real sugar. Since the late 20th-century, most soft drinks sold in the United States have been made with HFCS.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Mexican Coke phenomenon is the cost to the consumer. Glass bottles are more expensive to make than aluminum cans, but the difference in retail price does not seem commensurate with manufacturing and production expenses. Bay Area shoppers can generally find HFCS Coke for $3 to $4 a 12-pack, or about 30 cents per 12-ounce can - and sometimes less. A 355-milliliter (12-ounce) bottle of Mexican Coke costs anywhere from 90 cents or so (Costco sells cases for $18.99 plus bottle deposit) to about $3.
With the economy in such bad shape, do Californians and other Americans with access to Mexican Coke really have enough disposable income to be paying up to 12 times as much per 12-ounce unit than they would be for HFCS Coke? In the Bay Area, at least, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”
An informal survey of several diners and markets in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland found that all of them reported increased sales in Mexican Coke. Why? Is the sugary version of Coca-Cola really that much tastier than the HFCS product?
Recently, The Punditty Project was able to offer a Mexican Coke to a 65-year old man who quit drinking soda after HFCS became ubiquitous in soft drink production. “Soda just hasn’t tasted good to me for the last 20 years or so,” he said, “but I’ll give the Mexican Coke a try.”
Just like “the old days”
After taking his first drink, a smile formed on his lips and he began reminiscing about “the old days.” He theorized that the carbonation in the bottle was a contributing factor to the good taste, but believed the real sugar was the main factor. Before even finishing the bottle, he was already planning to pick up a case of Mexican Coke – also known as “Inca Coke” – on his next trip to Costco.
Will American Coke manufacturers begin returning to sugar as more and more people begin drinking Mexican Coke? Will the economics of the sugar industry and globalism allow it? Has there ever been a formal taste test between Mexican Coke and the stuff Americans have been drinking for the last couple decades? It may take some time for the first two questions to be answered, but TPP is planning a series of taste tests between the two Cokes in the late spring or early summer.
Stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy a refreshing glass of water – preferably one that isn’t contaminated with pharmaceutical wastes.
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