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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Soda

What the fuck actually *is* cola? And is Pepsi really the choice of a new generation? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Soda! Is it the breakfast of champions? Will it turn your teeth into nothingness? Let’s crack open a deliciously chilled can of sparkling soda myths and facts!

Lie #1: A Soda for Breakfast Is No Worse Than a Coffee

Yeah, it’s no worse… if you’re an unhinged lunatic

Hardcore breakfast soda enthusiasts will almost always jump to the coffee comparison — actually, coffee’s bad for you as well, actually, and it’s pretty much the same because actually, what are you, some sort of rule-following puppet too scared to break the rules, suckling at the teat of Big Coffee and waiting until after lunch to have something nicer, you sheep, you pig, you sheeplike pig?

One can of non-Diet Coke includes 12 grams of sugar, the equivalent of three teaspoons. It also contains 34 milligrams of caffeine, compared to 140 milligrams or so in a cup of coffee the same size. If you’re drinking soda for the pick-me-up effects, getting the equivalent caffeine jolt as a cup of coffee with one teaspoon of sugar involves taking in 12 times as much of the sweet stuff. 

High-caffeine sodas like Red Bull or Monster Energy might get you to that caffeine level faster, but they also include huge amounts of sugar — one can of Red Bull contains almost as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, but a staggering 27 grams of sugar. Caffeine stops the neurons in your brain from responding to adenosine, a chemical that makes you feel sleepy. Sugar provides you with energy, but doesn’t translate to feeling more alert or energized. 

If opting for sugar-free or diet soda, you’re likely to end up eating more and gaining weight, which doesn’t tend to be anyone’s favored outcome. Diet soda can affect how well your body breaks down real sugar, too, resulting in the excitingly-named but no fun “metabolic derangement.” 

The big dogs have tried to popularize breakfast soda, of course — Pepsi had a product called Pepsi A.M., while Coke had a “Coca-Cola in the morning” ad campaign — but it’s never really caught on, apart from in the South, where its popularity is attributed to the heat and farmers, which is fair enough, as sitting on a tractor drinking a piping-hot coffee in 90-degree heat sounds fucking dreadful. The only real success story is Mountain Dew’s Kickstart, which Mountain Dew claims isn’t a soda due to containing 5 percent fruit juice but is manifestly a soda

In an ideal world, you need neither, and just jump out of bed ready for anything, hydrating yourself with water and not needing the jolt of caffeine at all. But if you do need a little boost, you’re much better off with a coffee (a sensible one, not a bonkers one that’s basically a dessert) than cracking a soda. Whichever you go for though, know when is enough — luckily coffee has an in-built cessation mechanism, in that cup number six makes you shit your pants. 

Lie #2: Pepsi is the Choice of a New Generation

It’s the second choice of every generation. In the U.S., Coke has double the market share of Pepsi and pretty much always has. According to Forbes, Coca-Cola is the world’s sixth most valuable brand, while Pepsi languishes at number 29. In almost every country on Earth, Coca-Cola is the most popular carbonated beverage, followed by Pepsi.

(The exceptions include India, where both Coke and Pepsi are outsold by Sprite and Thums Up cola — both owned by the Coca-Cola company — as well as the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Coke outsells Pepsi in Scotland, but both are beaten by local beverage Irn-Bru, a delicious drink, mysteriously lurid orange in color and claiming to be flavored with girders.)

However, PepsiCo (the company that owns Pepsi) brings in twice the money Coca-Cola does, due to diversifying into the food world — it owns Doritos, Funyuns, Lay’s, Totstitos, Ruffles, SunChips, Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima, Cracker Jacks, all kinds of stuff. You could live like a variety-loving stoner, having different junky shit for every meal with no repeats, for a week easily without ever having a non-PepsiCo product. (Your skin would be nightmarish and you’d be ever so tired, but whatevs.) PepsiCo is the more profitable company.

Something they don’t own, though, is their old slogan. The copyright on “The Choice of a New Generation” expired, allowing a small oatmeal company to use it. Is oatmeal, then, the choice of a new generation? No! It’s oatmeal! It’s shit!

Lie #3: The Soda Jerk is an American Icon

“Soda jerk” is a shitty name — nobody would want to be employed as a “coffee asshole” or “juice dick.” The “jerk” part supposedly comes from the movement involved in swinging the handle of a soda fountain back and forth, which seems unfair — unblocking a toilet with a plunger makes actions not entirely dissimilar to roughly pleasuring a man, for instance, but it’s rare you see a plumber whose business card reads “toilet handjobber.”

A soda jerk is one of those jobs that, merely by virtue of not existing anymore, has been romanticized in the way so much from the past has, immortalized in the form of grinning Norman Rockwell magazine covers, wholesome Archie Comics escapades and vintage ads. A charming guy in a paper hat tipping you a cheeky wink as he slides you an ice-cold cherry cola down the bar, with two straws, because you’re sharing it with the keenest gal in school, ya lucky dawg!

But if you think about it for more than a few seconds, what a shitty job — long hours, olde-worlde wages, no employees’ rights whatsoever, shitty teenage tippers. Plus, soda was just as crappy for the human body back then as it is now — drinking it might have been a bit more of an occasion than plucking another plastic bottle from the mini-fridge under your desk, but it was still shitloads of sugar. Out of dirty glasses, of course — soda fountains were incredibly unhygienic

Something we always forget about the past is that maintaining all your teeth to adulthood was a fucking miracle. You watch something like Bridgerton (admittedly, set before soda, although the sparkling stuff does show up in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which takes place at about the same time, so there) and go, “Ooh, wasn’t the past sexy?” But it wasn’t, everyone stank like toilets, had stumps for teeth and casually lost a third of their friends to death every winter. The past was rubbish!

Lie #4: There’s Nothing Odd About the Most Popular Flavor of Soft Drink Being “Cola,” a Flavor That Nobody Knows What It Is

It’s a bit weird, surely, that Coca-Cola, the single most popular product in the world, is next to impossible to describe the flavor of. Try describing it without mentioning other colas — you can’t really do it. It’s like describing the color blue to someone that hasn’t ever seen it, it’s hard. 

Cola takes its name from the kola nut, native to African rainforests and a natural source of caffeine. Coca-Cola isn’t thought to actually contain kola nuts anymore — not if an analysis published in 2011 in the Journal of Proteome Research is to be believed, anyway. The flavor comes from a heavily-guarded combination of oilsorange, lemon, cinnamon and others — and sugars, supposedly only ever known by two people at any given time. 

Every few years the Coca-Cola Company makes a big deal about the secrecy of their formula (and “Merchandise 7X,” its most mysterious ingredient), for no reason other than showing off really. If you knew the secret recipe and made your own, what would actually happen? Would McDonald’s start stocking your soda instead of the one they’ve had for decades? No — you might get stocked in a few bars, and maybe get a bit of investment down the line, but you’d essentially have a novelty product, a more expensive version of Coke that people might enjoy now and then before returning to, well, The Real Thing™

There are open-source cola recipes, and smaller cola companies that are open about their ingredients (as well as, in some cases like Karma Cola, committed to being more ethical products than their giant corporate counterparts), but Coke is in a position where its popularity is just self-perpetuating — it’s the default cola, the default soft drink, in some cases the default drink. Is it even nice? Yeah? No? Maybe? It’s just there, and tastes of itself, and will probably remain there in some shape or form until all humans are dead. 

Lie #5: I’m Drinking Soda, There’s No Booze in My System

Alcohol isn’t just used for getting wasted. It can power trucks, clean wounds and be used to make your armpits stink less. It’s versatile stuff! It can also be used in the making of ostensibly non-alcoholic drinks, as a vehicle for dissolving and combining flavors. 

When it’s there, it’s in trace amounts too minuscule to be an issue for most people, but there are those for whom it’s far from ideal. A study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology found residents of a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Norway had alcohol in their systems after drinking lots of Sprite — it’s easy enough to envision a scenario where someone testing positive for alcohol while adamant they hadn’t touched a drop could lead to all sorts of dreadfulness. 

A study by France’s National Institute of Consumption found alcohol in Coke and Pepsi despite both companies claiming there was no booze used in their recipes. Fermentation takes place naturally, and can be present in all kinds of stuff — a perfectly normal glass of orange juice might just contain alcohol, as might a banana, or even certain types of bread.

These trace amounts mean drinks containing up to 0.5 percent ABV are legally allowed to be called alcohol-free — you’re not going to get drunk off them (although in Finland this figure is, amazingly, 2.8 percent, making getting slightly drunk at least possible), and an absolute zero figure would make certain types of drink infeasible, as well as leaving a lot of companies perpetually open to litigation. But if you’re forbidden from ingesting alcohol on religious grounds, or in recovery and determined to have no alcohol in your system at all, you might want to steer clear of anything in a can.