By Ron Walker
Spend a few years writing about consumer culture, and you might get a little jaded about products or brands with cult followings. The extreme-loyalist customer always insists that there are perfectly rational reasons for his or her devotion; to the disinterested observer, the reasons seem dubious. This is good news for me, because it assures that I have plenty to write about. But this week, for once, I’m casting myself in the role not of the reasonable observer but of the dubious product-cultist.
The product is Coca-Cola that is made and bottled in Mexico. I’m not the only person who believes that it’s better: there’s a Mexican Coke Facebook page with more than 10,000 fans. “I am a (Mexican) Coke fiend,” wrote Richard Metzger on the Web site Dangerous Minds this past August. “It is SO FREAKING DELICIOUS.” Mexican Coke is “a lot more natural tasting,” another fan recently told a news program in Idaho. “A little less harsh, I would say.”
Mexican Coke cultists of course have a rational explanation: Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico is sweetened with sugar, while the U.S. version is (almost) always made with high-fructose corn syrup. That is so. And it’s surprising, given the degree to which uniformity defines the Coke idea. Who knew the “secret formula” could accommodate ingredient variation? Andy Warhol once suggested that Coke’s sameness united us all: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it and you know it.”
My own induction into this product cult was inadvertent and based on aesthetics. Some years ago I noticed a glass bottle of Coke for sale, and that was something I hadn’t seen in a while. It looked great; I enjoyed drinking it immensely. I didn’t notice the “No Retornable” and “Refresco” phrases on the 12-ounce bottle, or the ingredients. My rational explanation was that Coke tastes better from a glass bottle than from a plastic one or from a can. It happens that Popular Science examined this very contention on its Web site not long ago and allowed that as the “most inert” material in which the cola is packaged, it’s possible that glass results in a subtly more “pure, unaltered” product than plastic or aluminum. Of course a commenter on that site promptly chimed in that glass-bottle Coke often comes from Mexico: “In the United States, Coke is made with CORN SYRUP. . . . It’s disgusting.”
I’ve now heard this contention many times, but never more so than lately, as high-fructose corn syrup has become one of the most demonized ingredients in contemporary food culture. There’s a political angle (corn subsidies), an authenticity angle (it’s processed, very pervasive and just sounds industrial) and a paranoid angle (the entertaining conspiracy theory that the 1985 New Coke fiasco was an intentional failure, orchestrated to distract consumers from an ingredient switch in Coke Classic). The upshot is the curious celebration of sugar as natural and desirable. Pure-sugar soda fans motivate other product cults, including Passover Coke (using sugar instead of not-kosher-for-Passover corn syrup) available only around the Jewish holiday, and Dr Pepper from a particular bottler in Dublin, Tex.; Coke’s biggest rival has put out a product called Pepsi Throwback, “sweetened with natural sugar.” Somehow all the reverence for sugar manages to make high-calorie carbonated drinks sound like health food.
Read the rest here.