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The real Coke classic

True aficionados know, if you really want the kind of Coca Cola they used to make before the “New Coke” fiasco, you have to get one that was bottled in Mexico.

Coca-Cola Classic, as it has been known since then, wasn’t exactly the old formula, because it no longer contained cane sugar. Instead it was sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Regardless, sales skyrocketed and order was restored to the universe.
Now, decades later, iconic glass bottles of Coca-Cola sweetened with cane sugar have been appearing on store shelves around the U.S. Ironically, this arguably more real version of the real thing happens to be made in Mexico, where soft-drink bottlers still use cane sugar.

The surge of popularity of Mexican Coca-Cola in the U.S. doesn’t make the corporation happy, partly because of territorial rights, but more important, because cane sugar is a more expensive ingredient in this country than HFCS, thanks to tariffs and farm subsidies.

HFCS is cheaper because it comes from corn. The sweetener is made in a complex process that uses enzymes to partially convert nearly pure glucose corn syrup into fructose; the fructose is then recombined with glucose to create a high-fructose mixture of varying percentages, depending on the intended use. The soft drink ingredient, for example, contains 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.

Cane sugar, on the other hand, is sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose obtained from sugar cane, which is not widely grown in the U.S.

There’s a big debate over the effect of HFCS, which is in so many foods these days, and the agriculture policies that enable its widespread use by effectively subsidizing it. Ezra Klein and Grist would be good sources to learn more about that. The issue at hand here is which one of these taste better in an ice-cold Coke?

Mart Martin, a spokesman for Coca-Cola’s North American division in Atlanta, says there is “not a perceivable taste difference” between U.S. and Mexican Coca-Cola, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

To find out, we conducted a blind tasting of Mexican and U.S. Coca-Cola with the help of the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. Unmarked samples, both taken from glass bottles, were served to the students and faculty, who rated their relative sweetness and overall flavor.

Interestingly, people who had been raised in or near Mexico often instantly identified the Mexican Coca-Cola and universally preferred it, while those raised in the States preferred the U.S.-made Coca-Cola. In other words, we tend to like what we’re used to.

One thing that wasn’t tested is how much influence the shape of the Mexican Coca-Cola bottle and the label might have on taste perception. After all, nostalgia is a thirst for something sweet from the past.

I agree with the bit about the shape of the bottle. There’s something about the 16-ounce glass bottle that just feels so right. It doesn’t matter that I really can’t tell the difference, or that I switched to Diet Coke years ago. Hoist one of those bottles, and all is well in the universe.

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