Why I’ll Never Drink Coca-Cola
It has nothing to do with calories
Long before TikTok and Instagram, back when the “hashtag” was known as the “number sign,” there was the Pepsi Challenge.
The challenge was a simple blind taste test: give someone two unmarked cups, one filled with Coca-Cola and the other with Pepsi. Then ask the taster which cup of soda they liked more.
In the ads, the testers were always ride-or-die for Coke. After the taste test, they would confidently point to the cup of soda they liked best with a smug grin, and the host would reveal their soda of choice to be… Pepsi!
“Take the Pepsi challenge and let your taste decide!”
After the success of the Pepsi Challenge campaign, Coca-Cola responded by reformulating its syrup recipe. In other words, it essentially admitted that people actually do find Pepsi more satisfying.
After millions of research hours and dollars, Coca-Cola created a new formula that outperformed both their original Coke and Pepsi’s in over 200,000 blind taste tests. They called it New Coke.
Pepsi saw this new Coke formula as proof of their better flavor. In fact, Pepsi celebrated the inauguration of “New Coke” by giving all its employees the day off work.
Needless to say, New Coke completely failed. Seventy-nine days after releasing the new formula, the company announced that they would bring the original back in the form of “Coca-Cola Classic.” New Coke then became Coke II, until finally being phased out completely.
This is why New Coke failed and Coca-Cola Classic lives on today. The Classic is just below great, which means you’ll drink a lot more of it.
Today, if you buy any non-flavored can of Coca-Cola, it’s the original formula: not quite sweet, not quite acidic, not quite notable. Good, but not great. So what happened? If New Coke tasted better than the original formula, why do we still drink the original Coke today?
It all boils down to a phenomenon known as “sensory-specific satiety.” First described in rats by French physiologist Jacques Le Magnen, and then further studied with humans in the 1980s, sensory-specific satiety is essentially the idea that we become less interested in eating or drinking something as we have more of it. This psychological cue of satiety likely evolved to make sure we consumed a variety of foods, which meant a variety of nutrients.
The more flavorful your food, the stronger and faster you’ll reach the point of sensory-specific satiety.
Let’s say you’re about to chow down on some spicy, zesty, eggy fried rice. You’ve loaded it succulent veggies and chunks of chewy protein and doused it with sesame oil and oyster sauce, topping it all off with a light garnish of spring onion. You take your first bite, and your taste buds send all their happy signals to your brain on a Japanese bullet train. YAS, your brain says. More please! So you take a few more bites. With each bite, however, the taste and smell become less appealing than that first thrilling mouthful. Soon the train to Satisfactionville reaches the station. The trip is over. While mind-blowingly delicious, the dish soon tires your senses out, and you stop being interested in it. Okay, enough of that. Your brain says. Let’s watch some Netflix and chill.
It’s not that your stomach reached its physical limit — you’ve simply had enough of that dish. That’s why, even though you say you’re full, you can still make room for dessert. Your stomach is not really at capacity, you’ve just reached the point of sensory-specific satiety for fried rice. (This is also why, when presented with a wide variety of small bites, such as at a buffet, you’re capable of eating more, because you won’t ever reach this satiety point with any single dish.)
Now let’s say you’ve decided to dine on a simple bowl of rice instead, maybe with a bit of butter and salt. It’s good but unremarkable. Your taste buds send some signals to your brain, sure, but not on the fancy bullet train to Satisfactionville. This time they send the signals on a regional Amtrak.
You keep eating and eating, with the first bite not being so different from the next. It seems like, no matter how many bites of plain rice you take, you never feel satisfied. You start to wonder if you’re ever going to reach the Satisfactionville station.
Finally, your stomach physically expands so much that you call it quits. You’re full. But you’re not quite satisfied. Despite your stomach being uncomfortably distended, you seek something else. You have a piece of cheese. Then an apple. Then a handful of almonds. Then a piece of cake. Then some chocolate…
This is the secret to Coca-Cola. It’s sweet and flavorful enough that you keep drinking, but not so much that you ever feel like you’ve had enough. It’s the buttered rice of soda.
Think about it: can you really describe the taste of a Coke?
If Coke had a distinct, identifiable flavor, a real kick of cinnamon or lemon or chocolate, you would have a glass and not want another. You would be satisfied. But Coca-Cola is not designed to be satisfying. It’s just one endless tease. This is why New Coke failed, and Coca-Cola Classic lives on today. The Classic is just below great, which means you’ll drink a lot more of it.
This is also why the Pepsi Paradox exists. Most people prefer to drink Coca-Cola, yet find Pepsi to have a better taste. With approximately 4% more sugar than Coke, Pepsi manages to give you just the right level of sweetness to stimulate the ventral striatum in your brain — a region crucial to pleasure-reward behaviors and sensory arousal. Pepsi is therefore more satisfying than Coke, which means you’ll want less of it.
Of course, Coca-Cola knows this. They know their formula is just forgettable and plain enough to keep us drinking more in hopes of fulfilling our craving. Like all mega-industry food giants, they’ve studied their products through every possible means, from psychological surveys to fMRI machines.
Looking back, the introduction and subsequent discontinuation of New Coke was the best possible win for Coca-Cola. When Coke announced its new formula, it became the opening story for national news across the world, and Coke drinkers lost their minds. They started signing petitions and protesting in the street to bring back the original Coke. They invaded supermarkets and started stocking up in bulk, filling their basements with cans in fear of their beloved soda being discontinued. It was better than any publicity stunt Coca-Cola could have intentionally launched.
The irony is, if New Coke had succeeded, people would have likely enjoyed its taste more. And, to the detriment of Coca-Cola, they would have likely drunk less.
So what can we learn from all this? What’s the moral of the story?
Processed food and beverages are not designed to satisfy you. They’re designed to always leave you itching for more. So make yourself something truly delicious, with complex flavors that linger on your tongue and a variety of textures. Instead of that can of Coke, drink something strong with a personality, like an earthy cup of coffee or a tannic glass of wine. Instead of Oreos, eat a cookie sandwich with heaps of cocoa powder and a silky buttercream filling. Instead of low-fat frozen yogurt, indulge in your favorite ice cream and enjoy the ride straight to Satisfactionville.
The almost-satisfying Coke trap is all around us, in products promising to fulfill our cravings without indulging. But our brains don’t work that way. Instead of each one rich, memorable serving, you’ll just keep eating and eating — which is what they want, because the more you eat, the more they sell. So don’t fall for it.
Don’t worry about calories. Worry about making it as delicious as humanly possible, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you feel satisfied. You might end up losing weight, but that is not the point. More importantly, you’ll start to rediscover the life-affirming joy of real food.