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Coca-Cola Taste Test: High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Sugar

First Posted: 03/06/2012 4:25 pm EST Updated: 04/15/2013 1:37 pm EDT

Nearly 30 years ago, Coca-Cola switched over from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup to sweeten America's beloved carbonated soft drink. With corn subsidized by the government, its sugary syrup became a more affordable option for the beverage company.

While this switch went largely unnoticed for quite some time (though it's common knowledge these days), it didn't take place on an international level. Actually, the sweetener used in Coca-Cola varies from country to country based on what ingredient is most affordable for the bottling plant's location. And in many countries, Mexico included, Coke is still made with real sugar.

Mexican Coke, which comes in an old-fashioned glass bottle, was first imported to the U.S. market for the immigrant population and initially could only be found in little bodegas. But it's now available in a number of major grocery stores across the country.

Why does Mexican Coke share the same shelf as regular Coke? The answer is simple: it has a cult following that has created the demand. This sugar-sweetened soda ranks high on the list of foodies across the country and even has a Facebook page with thousands of followers. Its fans believe that Mexican Coke has a "more real, authentic flavor," though the Coca-Cola company denies that there's a discernible difference between any of their cokes.

Coke spokesman Scott Williamson told Rob Walker of the New York Times that despite the different use of sweeteners “all of our consumer research indicates that from a taste standpoint, the difference is imperceptible.” We decided to find out for ourselves: is there a palatable difference between regular Coke and Mexican Coke? Or are people just charmed by Mexican Coke's nostalgic glass bottle? Our team of 20 editors conducted a taste test to get real answers.

The Verdict

Twenty editors blind taste-tested the two cokes, side by side, and found ...

  • 85 percent of our tasters could tell the difference between regular Coke and Mexican Coke.
  • 80 percent of our tasters preferred Mexican Coke to regular Coke.

Here's what our tasters thought:

Regular Coke: "Tastes thicker, sweeter." "Didn't taste good, kind of bland." "Has interesting, almost vanilla, aftertaste, yet weird chemical flavor at first." "Tang -- long aftertaste."

Mexican Coke: "Viva Coca-Cola Mexicana!" "I don't really like soda, but the sugar variety is quite palatable." "Has a cleaner, less artificial flavor." "A little brighter." "Seems sweeter." "Feels thicker." "Pure bubbles."

Other: "Couldn't really taste the difference." "Difference is slight, can't pick a favorite."

IN SUMMARY: Despite what Coke spokespeople may say, there's a very discernable difference between Coke sweetened with sugar and Coke sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. And the numbers suggest that Mexican Coke is a clear-cut favorite. Now we just need to figure how we can all get our hands on some.

UPDATE: Michael Blanding, author of The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink brought to light an excerpt from an earnings conference call by Coca-Cola FEMSA, the Mexican bottler of Coke, in 2009. The speaker is the CFO of the company. This call highlights that Mexican Coke has lowered their mix to, basically, 70 percent local sugar versus 30 percent high-fructose corn syrup. Apparently, that ratio could be closer to 60 percent sugar and 40 percent high-fructose now.

Can you taste a difference between the two Cokes? Leave a comment.

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Filed by Julie R. Thomson  |