There’s a group of Americans who swear passionately by Coca-Cola (KO) imported from Mexico. It’s sweetened not with high-fructose corn syrup but with cane sugar, which some insist tastes better and might even be healthier. Not to mention the cute little glass bottles that seem to scream, “I’m no ordinary Coke consumer!”
Taste is one thing, but anyone choosing sugar-sweetened soda for health reasons seems misguided. Why not pour yourself a glass of water? Anyone drinking it to satisfy some counterculture itch seems even more confused: It’s still Coke, for crying out loud.
But when Francisco Garza Egloff, chief executive of Arca Continental (AC*:MM), Coca-Cola’s Mexican bottler, let slip in an earnings call two weeks ago that the company is considering using more corn syrup to cut costs (the government would soon approve a tax on junk food), America’s small but vocal Cult of Mexicoke freaked out. It was enough to prompt a reversal of sorts from Arca, which subsequently vowed to continue using only cane sugar in the Coke it exports to the U.S. Call it a New Coke moment in reverse for the maker of Mexican Coke. The uproar also revealed that much of the Coke sold south of the border already contains high-fructose corn syrup. Arca’s corn-to-sugar mix for the soda it sells at home is around 50/50.
By any measure, these connoisseurs of Mexican-made Coke are a vanishingly small sliver of American consumers. Take just one rough measure of popularity: the official Coca-Cola Facebook page has more than 75 million likes; an unofficial (and possibly inactive) fan page for Mexican Coca-Cola has about 10,000 likes. A “Mexican Coke topic page with 7,000 Facebook (FB) supporters, meanwhile, repeats the standard line: “Mexican Coke is sweetened with sugar—NOT with high fructose corn syrup. So It’s better. Ask anyone.”
It would seem the two colas made by the same giant beverage conglomerate are distinct enough for consumers to prefer one over the other—and pay a premium. At my local bodega in Brooklyn, a 12-ounce bottle is $1.50, the same as a 20-oz. bottle of the American stuff. Some describe the Mexican version to be crisper and fizzier, with a hint of root beer. A Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Kerry Tressler, points to company research showing no perceptible difference in taste. Maybe it just seems better from a cold glass bottle in place of the plastic and aluminum prevalent in the U.S.?
Maybe it’s the mere suggestion of high-fructose corn syrup that Mexican Coke enthusiasts find unsavory. Public opinion about the corn-based sweetener isn’t keen at the moment, and manufacturers unsuccessfully tried to rebrand it as “corn sugar.” But guess what? Fructose was once perceived as the superior option when sugar was mainstream. As Mother Jones reminds us:
Back in the ’70s, table sugar (a.k.a. sucrose) was the bad guy. People associated it (rightly) with tooth decay and diabetes, whereas fructose, the predominant sugar in fruit, seemed a more natural option. Gary Taubes, author of the nutritional bestseller Good Calories, Bad Calories, explains that manufacturers of items like Snapple and sweetened yogurt didn’t want sugar in the first few ingredients, because it made their products appear unhealthy. So corn-syrup marketers capitalized on fructose’s good reputation, and by the ’80s, food and beverage manufacturers were switching to HFCS in droves.
“Yes,” a passionate fan might argue, “but Mexicoke is just so much more amazingly awesome and delicious.” We’ve heard you loud and clear. The product has certainly benefited from some fanatic word-of-mouth, appealing to American shoppers’ enthusiasm for something a little different in the soda aisle—emphasis on little.