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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Throwin' it back

We are in the midst of something interesting. On the soda front, that is. Just this week, PepsiCo has brought to the table one of their most intriguing ideas yet: the release of "Throwback" versions of its two hottest drinks, Mountain Dew and Pepsi-Cola. What does that mean? Sugar. Not high-fructose corn syrup. Pretty damn cool.

Staying true to CEO, Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi's, vision for the company's future in healthier products and more environmentally responsible leadership, Pepsi's new eight-week long campaign for the spring is certainly something I would never have expected. Truth be told, I am more of a Coke man when it comes to the two major brands, preferring not only the flavor of their self-named cola but also that of Barq's Root Beer (to Pepsi's Mug) and Sprite (to Pepsi's Sierra Mist), but this project of Pepsi's really caught my attention. It didn't hurt that my friends Ryan and Amanda had a case of the new (old) Pepsi in their house. So along with another case of old (new) Pepsi, we spent Friday night doing what anyone would do: a blind taste-test.

We broke out a can of each, and in secretly marked paper cups (with a cup each of water and a sleeve of Saltines as palate cleansers--this was the real deal, buddies), poured an equal amount of both the current recipe including HFCS and the Throwback with its mixture of pure cane and beet sugar. Then, the four of us around Ryan's kitchen table (Miller was there too, after a lengthy bike ride all afternoon), began sipping and philosophizing.

There wasn't a clear directive in our experiment, just a curiousity about how different the two drinks really would be, back to back. We were quick to find that there definitely were differences, leading us to posit two obvious questions:

1) Which one was which?
2) Which one was better?

We sat and thought on both of these for quite a while, each of us with our own theories. Since we didn't know much science on how each should taste, we took shots in the dark, assuming that the "heavier" of the drinks (slightly more syrupy-tasting and prone to clinging to the sides of the cup) must be the HFCS--an assumption that, now, I don't even remember if we were correct about. Sounds right to me though. One of the two drinks was much sweeter than the other also, but we had no idea what that meant. Ultimately, we all ended up pretty much preferring the sweeter of the two, though we were mixed on which we had actually chosen. As we lifted our cups to look for the X Ryan had marked on the bottoms of the HFCS samples, we all had to cringe. There were four X's. Pepsi had gotten us after all--we really did prefer the super-sweetness of the HFCS over the more mild flavor of the sugar.

However, the preference was a minor one. Ryan pointed out that he would be far more prone to actually drink an entire can of the sugar recipe, whereas he usually doesn't finish one of the "normal" cans because the sweetness is too overwhelming. A valid point, especially because we were only taking a few swallows before making our decisions. The kicker for the rest of us had nothing to do with the sweetness but in other aspects of the production itself. In the time it took for us to sample both drinks, the sugar recipe had gone all but completely flat. Whether this is because of the lack of HFCS or due to other changes in the Throwback recipe (and there are a few, if you compare their labels), we did not know. Still, that was a far more major deciding factor than the actual flavor itself for the majority of us.

But as I said before, it was a close call. There was no absolute winner, and later that night when we taste-tested the Mountain Dews in a similar fashion, the Throwbacks turned out a 2-2 draw against the HFCS recipe (though it should be mentioned that at least three of us testing hate Mountain Dew in general, so there may have been confounding variables on what exactly is "good" in said fizzy drink). What we all could agree on when everything was said and done was that we would absolutely welcome a long-term, sugar-sweetened line from Pepsi. The health benefits (or perhaps "lesser detriments to one's well-being," since soda isn't exactly a health food to begin with) of sugar over HFCS far outweigh the miniscule difference in taste. Chances are, the vast majority of the soda-drinking public wouldn't even notice a change. I certainly don't think I'd have realized anything was different if we hadn't nerded out and done a taste test.

It's only too bad that the Throwbacks are only going to be here into June, so if you want to give them a try, you'll have to hit up your local convenience stores soon. Actually, buy up as much as you can: if they make enough money on the promotion, maybe they'll introduce a permanent sugar-sweetned line; if they don't, you'll have collectors items on your hands if you can hold onto them for another thirty or forty years. It's a win-win situation.

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