In 1985, the Coca-Cola Co. shocked the world by changing their timeless recipe with the introduction of a product called “New Coke.” Public outcry over the recipe change was monumental and ultimately led to the company reinstating the original recipe under the new name “Coca-Cola Classic.”
What the world at large failed to realize, however, was that Coca-Cola Classic had undergone a fundamental recipe change that many soda fans are only recently starting to notice: the switch from traditional cane sugar to the cheaper, more economical high fructose corn syrup.
While Coke distributors in America and elsewhere across the globe have been using the genetically modified sweetener for years, Mexican distributors, almost without exception, have continued using cane sugar, according to a 2005 article in the Miami Herald.
According to fans, the difference between cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup is akin to the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Although Coca-Cola has famously claimed there is “no perceptible taste difference” between the products, fans of Mexican Coke disagree.
“When I tried the Coke [in America] I didn’t like it; I could taste the difference,” said Kingsport resident Maria Moreno. “When I buy Coke, I buy the Mexican.”
Although the secret recipe for Coke is licensed and protected by the Coca-Cola Co., there are several distributors in America, Mexico and all over the world, and each distributor has the freedom to choose which particular sweetener they use to produce the product.
While cane sugar was used in the United States for almost 100 years, the domestic tariff imposed on sugar in the early 1980s caught the attention of both Coke and Pepsi.
Keeping a sharp eye on the bottom line, distributors in America quickly realized that continuing to use cane sugar was going to cost them, and in 1985 both Coke and Pepsi made the switch to high fructose corn syrup.
For Coke distributors in America this meant the quiet introduction of a new Coke recipe without the public outcry that came to surround “New Coke.”
The only American version of Coke made with cane sugar that can even be purchased today is the special version produced by the company in limited supply once a year for Passover.
High fructose corn syrup, as the name implies, originates from corn and, consequently, can contain trace amounts of alcohol produced from fermentation, rendering the product un-kosher, according to Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Passover Coke, then, is made with real cane sugar, just like Mexican Coke.
FEMSA, Mexico’s largest Coke distributor, has already begun using high fructose corn syrup along with cane sugar to sweeten its product. This could be a sign of things to come, however, for the other dozen Coke distributors in Mexico.
The World Trade Organization ruled in 2005 that Mexico’s 20 percent tax on soft drinks containing corn syrup violates the North American Free Trade Agreement, meaning that high fructose corn syrup will likely become cheaper than cane sugar in Mexico. Mexico began imposing the tax in 2002 in an attempt to shelter its cane sugar industry.
“It’s more expensive what they’re producing in the small companies [in Mexico] than what they’re producing in the big [American] companies,” said Benjamin Marta of Kingsport, a fan of Mexican Coke.
“But I can tell the difference.”
Bottles of Mexican Coke containing high fructose corn syrup are already popping up in Tri-Cities Mexican food stores. FEMSA claims that its use of the artificial sweetener is blended with cane sugar and is not noticeable to the consumer, but with the price of sugar remaining high and corn syrup prices falling in Mexico, it might just be a matter of time before good old-fashioned, cane sugar Coca-Cola becomes even harder to find or maybe even a thing of the past.
This originally appeared in El Nuevo Kingsport Times-News.