This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in the June 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.
Sharp-eyed cola fans might have noticed that sugar has crept back into some versions of their favorite beverage. In 185 Costco stores, shoppers have a choice of the usual Coca-Cola Classic, made in the U.S. with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or Coca-Cola hecho en Mexico, made with sugar.
Coke made in Mexico first showed up in bodegas and Hispanic supermarkets in the Southwest, where Costco spotted it in 2005. The chain now moves 8,500 cases a week. The sugared version, bottled in green glass, is "a reassuring piece of home for Hispanics new to the U.S.," says Scott Williamson, a spokesman for the Coca-Cola Co. Less-expensive HFCS replaced sugar in most American-made Coke in the early 1980s.
Unfortunately, the price of Coke from Mexico isn't always so sweet. When we bought regular and Mexican Coke in the San Francisco area, we paid same-store price premiums of about 50 to 150 percent for Coke from south of the border.
In blind tests, our trained sensory panelists thought Coke from Mexico was a bit sweeter, and some found it had a fuller, slightly more complex flavor. Among 30 staffers who tried both Cokes, the preference for each was about equal.
You might occasionally still see made-in-the-U.S. sugared Coke. Classic Coke marked "kosher for Passover" is sweetened with sugar, and one Coca-Cola bottler never gave up sugar for its franchises in Cleveland and part of Pennsylvania. But that Coke doesn't sell at a premium. Costco charges more for Mexican Coke than regular because the Coca-Cola distributor charges Costco more for it, says John Eagan, vice president of foods merchandising for Costco's Los Angeles region.
As we went to press, PepsiCo introduced two sugared colas of its own: Pepsi-Cola Throwback, in 1960s-style packaging, is being sold until mid-June; Pepsi Natural, with "natural sugar," is in limited markets. A Pepsi spokeswoman said that Natural's blend of beet and cane sugar and "natural" claim aren't a response to the debate about a link between HFCS and obesity. (In 2004, a study published by researchers from Louisiana State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill theorized that HFCS in beverages could play a role in the obesity epidemic.)
The lowest price we paid for sugared Coke was at Costco, where a 24-bottle case costs about $19. Regarding obesity, our experts recommend avoiding empty calories, whether from sugar or HFCS. It's best not to consume more than 40 grams of added sweeteners per day—about the amount in a 12-ounce Coke.