For many Americans, Mexican Coke holds a kind of mythic status as the Better Coke. Made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, many Americans swear they prefer the flavor. So strong is American love for Mexican Coke that, when Mexican bottlers made the choice to switch to corn syrup locally, they continued producing the soda with cane sugar for specifically for American consumers.
But how deserving is it of its mythic status? In honor of Have A Coke Day, we tested two versions of classic coke with coworkers to see if they could tell the difference. Our taste-testers varied from people who hadn't had a soda since 2001 to die-hard Mexican coke fans, all eager to prove they could tell the difference between the two.
Having been not-so-diligent scientists in our high school lab periods, we nevertheless did our best to set up an experiment that could stand up to scrutiny. We had to acquire Mexican and American Cokes at two different locations, but then refrigerated both in the same place for an hour to make sure they were the same temperature. We then poured both samples in paper cups with the actual type of Coke written on the bottom so not even we would know the right answer when we asked participants.
Mexican Coke, as imported to the U.S., only comes in glass bottles. There were about a million ways we could have gone with its American cousin, but we decided to go with cans because it's one of the most common ways to consume it, and because an American Coke can holds the same amount of liquid as a Mexican glass bottle. We then took note on the two samples: they were the same size, and also had the same amount of sugar – 39 grams — though the source was difference.
Next we set about waving the samples in front of our coworkers, asking who felt strongly about Mexican vs. regular Coke. Not surprisingly, a lot of people claimed to be experts based on a love of Mexican Coke or just Coke in general. Some people picked right away, some people sipped back and forth and really thought about it. Some tried to guess by what they thought tasted "sweeter," or "less chemically." However, in a sampling of ten coworkers, only half were able to pick correctly. We may not have been great science students, but we could read the results pretty clearly: people were doing no better than average at guessing which was which. In other words, the odds were the same as if they were guessing if a coin would be heads or tails.
When people were right, they were right with confidence, something that would lead me to believe that maybe half of the tasters were just better at telling the difference. But, as one taster pointed out to me right after she guessed correctly, people who were wrong were often equally as confident.
When people found out they were wrong, they often offered a list of reasons why: the first Coke they sipped tasted sweeter, and that's why they thought it was the cane sugar or Mexican version. Then another person would offer the same explanation in a different order: surely the second sip tastes sweeter, and that's why they misidentified the American soda as being from Mexico. Two people also claimed they could smell a difference, though only one person was able to accurately guess based on smell alone. People's assumption of the flavor difference also meant they were basing their guesses on what they assumed Mexican Coke tastes like, and would often guess based on which Coke they believed tasted sweeter and more complex.
Is there a measurable difference between Mexican and American Coke? The answer may not ultimately matter, since people are willing to pay (as much as $5) to get their hands on the version that was made in Mexico. Although, it would seem that, at least in our sample pool, the idea that Mexican Coke is an inherently superior product is false, since many of the "better" characteristics people were able to find in American Coke.
However, there's no denying it's a measurably different experience. Mexican Coke is one of the few times many Americans will drink the soda from a glass bottle. In the States, bottled coke typically comes in a smaller, 8 oz. bottle. The imported Mexican versions are the same size as the can (12 oz), but offer a nostalgic experience.
Additionally, some experts claim that glass, unlike plastic or aluminum, interacts with soda the least and thus does't change the flavor. While all products will leave the factory made the same way (and with the same amount of carbonation), other materials can cause flavors to change, every so slightly, over time. None of these reasons have anything to do with corn syrup vs. cane sugar, but affect the drinker's overall perception.
Despite our experiment, we're still taking all this with a grain of salt. The last person to participate hadn't had a sip of soda in over 15 years, took a sip of each and and said simply, "They taste exactly the same."