Coke or Pepsi? This has been the defining question for many people since the great soft drink battles of the 1980s and 1990s. One can find a host of articles on the internet about the business side of things, with either Coke or Pepsi reporting a surge or decline in earnings. However, it’s true that these two brand names remain the most iconic even as lots of market share goes toward flavored water and fruit drinks.
But what about taste? Are Coke and Pepsi really so different in terms of flavor profile or is it just that marketing makes them seem very different in our minds?
To determine what is actually going on in flavor terms, the only way to eliminate or at least minimize the influence of branding is to do some double-blind taste-tasting, in which neither the experimenters nor the participants knew which drink they were tasting. When Pepsi was big in the 1980s, their strategy to make a splash was the famous “Pepsi Challenge.”
Featuring a series of ads with participants tasting two cola drinks side by side, the commercials showed consumer after consumer, some very surprised, watching as their taste of choice was revealed to be Pepsi. The concept of the challenge and the ad campaign, with the tagline “Let Your Taste Decide,” helped Pepsi overtake Coke at the most popular soft drink in supermarket sales by 1983.
In 2004, a team of neuroscientists published an article in the journal Neuron exploring the paradox that while Pepsi tended to win the taste challenge when it was “anonymously delivered,” once the participants watched ads, Coke surged to take the lead.
As to what it might be in Pepsi’s flavor that makes it more popular in blind taste tests, there are a couple of different possibilities. The first is that Pepsi is sweeter than Coke.
According to Coke’s website, a 12-ounce (355-milliliter) can of Coca-Cola Classic contains 39 grams of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HCFS), the second ingredient after water. As for Pepsi, they give the figure of 41 grams of sugars, which are made up of HFCS and regular sugar. So by sweetness alone, Pepsi has a slight but significant advantage.
But there’s something else that’s different about the two. As popular science writer Malcolm Gladwell put it in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, “Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke.” But where can those flavors come from?
Malcolm Gladwell talks to Food & Wine about learning to cook and the only 4 things he'll drink: http://ow.ly/Uq8lc
At first glance, the ingredient lists look quite similar in that the main ingredients are water and sweeteners, followed by coloring agents, preservatives, fizz (in the form of carbon dioxide), and caffeine.
The “natural flavors” that Coke lists as an ingredient are a closely guarded company secret that was developed by company founder Asa Candler in 1891. It’s possible that cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla could factor into the special brew that makes the famous beverage.
As for the “citrus” flavor that Gladwell tasted, it’s interesting to note, as BuzzFeed did, that Coke only contains one “tart” element, phosphoric acid. Pepsi, on the other hand, has both phosphoric acid and citric acid, which is a common ingredient in sour desserts and candy.
However, a fascinating document from the bankruptcy of Pepsi back in 1923 might shed light on the pleasant tang that Gladwell identified. This original formula preserved at Eastern Carolina University library shows “lime juice, oil lemon, oil orange” along with the flavors that could produce the “raisin” that is more pronounced in Coke. They include “cinnamon oil, oil nutmeg, oil coriander” as well as “petitgrain oil,” which is made from the leaves and green stems of the bitter orange tree.
While we’re not likely to know the exact formulas of either drink anytime soon, Gladwell definitely put his finger, or rather his taste buds, on something significant.