Photo: “Celebrate 125 years of the legend.” A Coca-Cola anniversary giveaway at Place de la République, Paris, January 2012. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
So, while we’re on the subject of American cultural exports, let’s consider Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is certainly the most widely-recognized American export to the world: certainly more so than Ford, or Levis, or even McDonalds. Here in France, ordering “un Coca” is as commonplace as ordering “a Coke” back in the U.S., but there is a difference here—and I’m not just talking about slightly smaller cans and much higher prices—I’m talking about the taste.
To be upfront about this, I haven’t been a “regular” Coke drinker for quite some time. With my metabolism, I just can’t afford all those extra calories, so I almost always drink Coke Zero. Every now and then, though, when I want to splurge, I do have regular Coke (or “Coca normal” here). The first time I drank a Coca normal here in France, I was struck by how good it tasted! Was it that I hadn’t had one in a while? Or was it some special recipe for the French market? (I knew that in certain markets, the recipe is tweaked to appeal to local tastebuds.)
At least according to the Coca-Cola website, the recipe used in France today is essentially the same recipe used back in 1886: carbonated water, sugar, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors (including caffeine from kola nuts), and cocaine … wait, so, no more cocaine, but they do still include coca leaf extract in those natural flavors. So what could possibly explain the difference in taste between an American Coke and a French Coca? Well, it’s all about the sugar.
In the United States, we started replacing sucrose (sugar from cane or beets) with high-fructose corn syrup in the early eighties. HFCS is a sweetener made from corn, in which some of the glucose from the grain is converted into fructose to achieve the desired sweetness. They don’t do that in France, though. Here, Coke is still sweetened with sucrose. Now, I’ll put aside the whole debate about the health effects of HFCS consumption. Suffice it to say that using sucrose instead produces a noticeably different, slightly sweeter and richer flavor. If you’re an American born before 1975 or so, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement, reminiscing about the good ol’ days when Coke from one of those little glass bottles just tasted better.
It raises the question, then, how come the French still enjoy real Coke “Classic” and we Americans get the HFCS version? As it turns out, Americans started using HFCS as a sweetener in the early 80s because of government subsidies to corn producers, an import tariff on foreign sugar, and production quotas on domestic sugar. All of that led to artificially high prices for sugar and relatively lower prices for HFCS. In contrast, the European Union imposes a production quota on HFCS instead of on sugar, which leads to artificially high prices on HFCS and relatively lower prices for sugar. So, when you drink an American Coke, picture endless cornfields in Iowa; when you drink a French Coca, picture beet fields in Germany and sugar cane plantations in Guadeloupe.
Okay, so it’s a Belgian ad, but it’s chock full of great Coca-Cola marketing in French.
Interestingly, you can find sugar-sweetened Coca-Cola in the United States. In many Latino neighborhoods, stores carry sugar-sweetened Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, and in the springtime, you can easily find “Passover Coke” in the supermarkets of cities with large Jewish communities. (Since corn is a grain that “rises,” it’s off limits during the Passover holiday.) Personally, I think Coca-Cola should follow Pepsi’s lead: if Pepsi can produce “Throwback Pepsi” made with real sugar, why can’t Coke start producing “Old School Coke”? There’s no good reason the rest of the world should have a monopoly on the Real Thing!
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved