Serious Eats: Drinks

Soda: The Pepsi Throwback Throwdown

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[Photo: Carey Jones]

John: We can leave debates about the nutritional, societal, agricultural, and economical issues surrounding high-fructose corn syrup to another column. But as more and more companies are introducing non-HFCS products, it's no surprise to see soda companies jump on the marketing bandwagon, introducing products like Pepsi Throwback, sweetened with good ol' sugar.

Coca-Cola has long offered versions with sugar in other countries, as well as in many Kosher food stores. But are sugar-based beverages better? I'll admit, I would grab the 12-pack of Throwback over the regular Pepsi because of my aversion to HFCS. (I didn't actually know if it tasted better, but the marketing had convinced me. Then, there's my fondness for the old packaging, and for Cindy Crawford.)

Carey: John is loyal to Mexican Coke, so I wasn't at all surprised he'd seek out sugar-sweetened Pepsi. But does he really prefer the taste of sugar—or just the idea of it? A few years ago, Adam Kuban tasted very little difference between Pepsi Throwback and the usual kind (and found a very slight office preference for Throwback in a double-blind taste test). What seems to me more relevant was that, in an exhaustive Food Lab, Kenji tested "Mexican Coke" (made with sugar) against normal American coke (corn syrup). He not only found that most tasters don't prefer the sugar version, but that thinking something was a Mexican Coke (or the experience of drinking it out of the bottle) had a huge impact.

It's of little matter to me (I preferred American Coke in every single test, and I'm a diet soda drinker, anyway), but John goes out of his way for Pepsi Throwback. If he doesn't really prefer it, that's a pretty big waste of time and money. (And John already has enough habits that waste time and money.)

Cans; bottles. We went for cans. [Photo: Robyn Lee]

John: For consistency's sake, we wanted all cans. American Pepsi, American Coke, and Pepsi Throwback were easy enough. But sugar-sweetened Coke? Your standard "Mexican Coke" comes in a bottle.

Carey: The solution came through a rather unlikely source: a new Celebrity cruise ship. We were on a weekend cruise (er, more on that later) leaving from Bayonne, but the shiny new boat was built in Germany, and they'd fully stocked their larders with German products, naturally enough. I got excited about the teeny Euro-style yogurt pots and drinking "Coke Light." John was all about the German sugar-sweetened Coke. So we made sure a can got back to dry land for the taste test.

John: Given that I'd rather sip and muse about soda than be tested on it (and that Monday Night Football was on), I figured we'd taste all four in unlabeled cups and call it a night. Being a rather severe stickler for detail, Carey insisted on a much longer battery of tests. (She'll roll her eyes and forgive me if I belch during taste tests, but half-assing it is not an option.)

Carey: So we not only tested Pepsi Throwback vs regular, and Coke vs sugar Coke, but every possible permutation—twice.

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[Photograph: pepsithrowbackhub.com]

John: The results? I consistently preferred Pepsi to Coke (which didn't surprise me), and sugar-sweetened soda to corn-syrup soda. What surprised me is that I actually preferred corn syrup Pepsi to sugar-sweetened Coke. (I know I'm a Pepsi guy. It runs pretty deep.)

Carey: With a sample size of one, this isn't intended to "prove" that any one of these sodas is superior to another. It did illustrate once again, though, that there are discernible differences between the colas, and between sugar-sweetened ones and standard American versions. (And that John doesn't need to board another cruise ship for German sugar Coke fix; a fifteen-second walk to the bodega for a Pepsi will do.)

John: One of the most interesting takeaways, for me, was how consistently I noticed something odd about the HFCS. It leaves a tinny, metallic aftertaste, and it's a little sharper; and though it's not quite as sweet-tasting, there's something oddly cloying about the drinks that included it.

To quote Baudelaire, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist. High Fructose Corn Syrup is trying desperately to shed its current moniker in an ad campaign rebranding itself as just another rendition of sugar. But after this taste test, I'm sticking to sugar when I can.

Carey: Turns out John was right about his own preferences, even in a blind taste-test. I'm sure they're only reinforced by the packaging. But really, what's wrong with that? I don't care if there are sugar pills or ibuprofen in my Advil bottle as long as my headache goes away.

Do you seek out Pepsi Throwback or sugar-sweetened Coke? And do you think you can taste a real difference?

About the authors: Carey Jones is the editor of Serious Eats New York and co-editor of Serious Eats: Sweets. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones). John M. Edwards is Serious Eats's former fast-food bureau chief and eats 85% of the food Carey orders. Follow him on Twitter (@johnmedwards).

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