My Cola Taste Test: Is Coke Really Better Than Pepsi?

People have been enjoying cola-flavored soft drinks ever since 1886 when the first glasses of Coca-Cola were being served up for five cents each (about $1.10 in today’s dollars) at a local Atlanta pharmacy.

Today, soft drinks are a key part of a beverage industry worth billions of dollars, so it should be no surprise that when it comes to the highly-competitive soft drink wars, the century-long crusade for cola lovers being waged by Coke and Pepsi shows no sign of abating.

In 1975, Pepsi introduced a blind taste test known as the “Pepsi Challenge.” Held in malls and shopping centers across America, it tried — unsuccessfully — to settle the “Coke versus Pepsi” debate once and for all.

Pepsi claims the challenge proved that more Americans preferred Pepsi than Coke. Maybe so. But when it comes to bragging rights for America’s top-selling soft drink, Pepsi has played the perennial bridesmaid to Coke ever since Pepsi-Cola made its market debut at the turn of the 20th century.

And Pepsi’s pride took another hit in 2011 when sales of Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi to officially become the second most popular soft drink in the US; Pepsi is now number three.

Is Coke really that much better than Pepsi? I think so. Arguably, the biggest difference between the two soft drinks is that Pepsi is sweeter, while Coke has a bit more carbonation — and I have a bias towards that refreshing fizz.

Today, my preference for Coke is so strong that I’ll often change my drink order to root beer or lemonade at establishments that only carry Pepsi.

For the record, I haven’t always been a Coke drinker. As a kid, my family drank only Pepsi; in fact, I didn’t become a loyal Coke addict drinker until I finally left the nest.

Anyway, with that in mind, I decided to find out which cola my family would ultimately choose in a modified version of my own Pepsi Challenge.

How the Test Was Conducted

As with my blind ketchup taste test, I recruited a bunch of family members as an expert panel. This time there were 10 eager volunteers (plus the dog, of course).

With the panel in place, I prepared individual cola samples in separate paper cups. To ensure the taste test was a blind comparison, the samples were marked ‘A’ through ‘D.’

The experts were asked to rank each cola solely for taste, from best to worst, with four points for the top performer and one point for the worst. The panel was also free to note any accompanying comments they had regarding each sample.

When comparing products, panelists that could not discern a clear taste advantage between two or more brands were allowed to give identical rankings.

The Expert Panel

Before we get to the results, let’s once again meet our distinguished panel of experts:

Doris

Aunt Doris
Birthplace: London, England
Age: 90-something
Favorite Actor: Tichina Arnold

Dad

Dad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 74
Favorite Actor: Clint Eastwood

Mom

Mom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 71
Favorite Actor: Robert De Niro

Kevin

Kevin
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 59
Favorite Actor: John Wayne

Chris

Chris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: Something-nine
Favorite Actor: Renee Zellweger

Honeybee

The Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 44
Favorite Actor: Sandra Bullock

Evan

Evan
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 33
Favorite Actor: Jeff Bridges

Mark

Mark
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 31
Favorite Actor: Robert Redford

Matthew

Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 14
Favorite Actor: Eminem

Nina

Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 12
Favorite Actor: Russell Brand

Major1

Major
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 8
Favorite Actor: Scooby Doo

.

Introducing The Cola Competitors

I ran down to my local Albertsons supermarket and bought all four cola brands they were offering for sale: Pepsi; Coke; Royal Crown; and Chill, which is a bargain-brand marketed by Shoppers Value.

Here now, in reverse order, is a summary of the cola taste test results, based upon the inputs of my expert panel:

4. Coca-Cola

Price (2-liter): $1.79
Panel Scoring: 17 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 1.6
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 0

OMG. Coca-Cola inventor Dr. John Pemberton must be rolling over in his grave. Not only did the top-selling US soft drink — not to mention my personal favorite — finish dead last, it was thoroughly trounced by its competition. How bad was it? Not a single panelist selected Coke as their favorite cola, and six of the ten human judges rated it dead last; a seventh ranked it second from the bottom. Flavor was the predominant complaint. The Honeybee gave the Coke demerits for being “too watery,” while Dad popped that it was “lacking in flavor.” On the positive side, Mark liked Coke’s “fizz factor.”

3. RC Cola

Price (2-liter): $1.29
Panel Scoring: 25 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.4
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 2

Royal Crown cola has been around in its present incarnation since 1934. Today, it is distributed by Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group. Although not as popular as Coke or Pepsi in terms of sales, RC Cola received blue ribbons from two panelists, and three other judges ranked it second-best. Chris thought it was the “best tasting by far,” and Aunt Doris gave it her highest mark because it was “simply perfect.” On the other hand, Matthew said the Royal Crown tasted “flat,” and both Nina and my mom thought the RC was “too sweet.”

2. Chill

Price (2-liter): $1.00
Panel Scoring: 27 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.5
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 3

The bargain brand performed well, earning three blue ribbons from the panel. Only one panelist, Mark, thought the Chill cola was the worst of the bunch; he thought it was “way too syrupy.” It’s interesting to note that my mom and dad both picked Chill as their favorite cola and remarked on their evaluation sheets that the bargain brand was probably Pepsi.

1. Pepsi Cola

Price (2-liter): $1.79
Panel Scoring: 31 points
Average Score (4-point scale): 2.9
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 5

As far as my expert panel was concerned, Pepsi was clearly the top of pops. It received blue ribbons from five of the judges and two others thought it was second best. My dad was the only one to rank it last (“too flat”), but he was in the minority. Kevin wryly noted that the only thing that could have made the Pepsi better was a splash of rum.

So Is Pepsi Really Better Than Coke?

While Coke has always been America’s top-selling soft drink, Pepsi has steadfastly maintained that, in head-to-head competition, more people prefer the taste of their product in blind taste tests. And even though my taste test experiment included additional competitors, it still managed to back up Pepsi’s claims.

So while the results of my little cola taste test experiment will have most Pepsi fans screaming “I told ya so!”, in the end it’s just another skirmish in a long battle that will most likely do absolutely nothing to convince Coke drinkers that Pepsi should rightfully be declared the cola world’s “King of the Hill.”

I know I’m not impressed. As far as I’m concerned, Coke will always be number one in my book.

Photo Credit: srboisvert

Comments

  1. 1

    Greg says

    Hi Len

    Was this a ‘single sip’ taste test or did every one drink a full glass of each?

    I read about the ‘new Coke’ debacle (Malcolm Gladwell book I think) where Coke tried to out-do Pepsi in their taste test. Apparently most people prefer a sweet drink in the first sip (Pepsi, ‘new Coke’ and most store cola’s).
    But, drink a full glass and the winner is Coke (well in my book anyways :-) – which is why they still such a huge market share.

    • 2

      says

      Greg, I read that same study — yes, its in a Malcolm Gladwell book, and you summarized it perfectly. Pepsi is the winner with a one-sip test, but Coke wins if you consume the entire glass … which may explain why Len sticks with Coke despite his family taste test results.

    • 3

      Len Penzo says

      It was a single small Dixie cup sample, Greg. Maybe two sips worth at most.

      That’s a very interesting observation, and one that makes a lot of sense to me!

        • 5

          Len Penzo says

          I didn’t, Dr. Dean. But those two-liter bottles tend to move quickly in busy supermarkets — and the bottles were opened the day after I purchased them.

  2. 6

    Cindy says

    I like Coke a lot better too because it’s not as sweet as Pepsi. Pepsi’s flavor seems more geared towards kids. I think Coke is a much more refreshing drink during the heat of summer because of that.

    • 7

      Len Penzo says

      Me too, Cindy. There’s something about a freshly poured can or bottle of Coke poured over ice and having those bubbles popping over the glass that really does add to the refreshment factor. Pepsi can’t match that.

  3. 8

    Jessie says

    One Diet Coke addict, signing in! :-)

    I read somewhere (maybe Consumer Reports?) that the main difference between Coke and Pepsi is that Coke’s “secret formula” is based on vanilla flavoring, where Pepsi’s is based on citrus. And I’ve seen old-time ads where Pepsi was originally developed and advertised as a cheaper alternative to Coke.

    • 9

      Len Penzo says

      That’s correct, Jessie. I’ve read the same thing. While Coke’s actual recipe is a closely-guarded secret, I believe the consensus is Coke’s flavor is based upon a combination of vanilla and cinnamon.

      Whatever it is, I think its flavor is a bit more sophisticated (well, as sophisticated as a cola can be anyway, LOL!) than Pepsi’s.

      I’m sorry, Pepsi fans — I realize I’m sounding like a complete Coke snob now!

  4. 10

    tracee says

    diet coke for the win!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! but only fountain soda. i don’t like canned or bottled. weird i know

    • 11

      Len Penzo says

      I love fountain Cokes too. When I was a kid, there was an old drug store in my hometown that had a soda and ice cream bar. I used to ride my bike there and buy real vanilla and cherry Coke’s where they added all the flavorings to the soda water — this was long before you could buy it in cans. Soooooo good!

      And is it just me, or does the Coke at McDonald’s taste better than Coke at any other fast food restaurant? I don’t why that is, but I swear it’s true!

  5. 14

    Againstthegrain says

    Eh, neither. I’ve lost my taste for sodas after giving up Diet Coke about 6 years ago. My bones, teeth, and wallet are healthier for it, too (phosphoric acid in colas mess with the mineralization process). I usually drink plain water with meals, occasionally some variety of chilled tea (or wine).

    If I want a carbonated beverage, I choose a sparkling mineral water with a high magnesium content (esp Gerolsteiner), sometimes with a lemon or lime wedge squeezed and dropped in, other times with a generous splash of a homemade “fruit shrub” syrup added (google it). Very refreshing.

    I usually drink plain water at restaurants, though if unflavored carbonated water is offered at self-serve soda fountains, I’ll choose that option. And it’s freeeee!

    • 15

      Len Penzo says

      Until about five years ago, I drank about a quart of Coke per day, sometimes as much as a half gallon! I know.

      But since then I’ve cut back to a pint or less of Coke per day — and usually only at lunch. Now, unless I’m eating at a fast food joint, I try to drink fruit juice every evening for dinner. I feel much better now too!

    • 17

      Len Penzo says

      I bought all the Colas being offered at my local store. I wish there were more to sample too!

      I remember when Jolt cola first came out — I was in college and it was a big hit with those who needed help pulling all-nighters but didn’t like Mountain Dew or coffee.

      (For the record, folks, I only pulled one all-nighter ever in college.)

  6. 18

    CandiO says

    I gave up all brown soda for a bit and that finally broke my Diet Coke addiction. Now when I have it (yes I went back to the brown soda goodness) I can happily drink either one and it doesn’t matter to me.

  7. 20

    says

    Interesting, as usual. I’m a diet coke fan, when I drink cola, which is not too often. I also drink diet Mt Dew, being a true southerner. I’m now switching to green tea beverages, but drink plain ole tap water mostly.

    I’m not a soda Nazi however, so enjoy!

    • 21

      Len Penzo says

      Dr. Dean … I know you. You’re a white wine and Schlitz guy! LOL

      And I thought the quintessential southern soda pop was Mello Yello!

  8. 22

    says

    Pepsi IS better than Coke! it drives me bonkers when restaurants substitute Coke for Pepsi (without telling you in advance). I can’t stand the taste of Coke… and it makes me teeth all grindy!

    • 23

      Len Penzo says

      Julie, that “grindy” feeling on your teeth is Coke’s “scrubbing bubbles” at work. They help keep your teeth pearly white! ;-)

  9. 25

    Ed says

    I thought I was reading my own words when you said you would rather drink root beer or lemonade if they don’t serve the drink of choice. Except my choice is Pepsi!!!
    Even your own test results show that Pepsi tastes better ;)

    I believe that the only reason Coke and Diet Coke are 1st and 2nd on sales lists is because all the big fast food and restaurant chains. If McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Chili’s, Cinemark Theaters, etc sell Coke, they will of course be #1 in sales. And it is only probably due to being the least expensive supplier…..

    • 26

      Len Penzo says

      Your avatar is blasphemous, Ed! lol ;-)

      You may be right about Coke sales being helped out by the additional sales at fast food and restaurant chains. According to the NY Times, Coke’s worldwide market share of all cola sales had slipped to just 53 percent in 2007; in the US it was a bigger spread, with Coke having a 43 percent market share and Pepsi at 33 percent.

  10. 27

    says

    I like Coke but I don’t actually drink it anymore. It leads to wasting money when you could just drink water. And, along those lines. it’s just junk so drinking water is insurance for your health. Practically free and better for you.

  11. 28

    Thomas says

    I also prefer Coca-Cola, especially the Coke that has been bottled in Mexico. It uses real cane sugar
    instead of HFCS, you can reallly taste the difference. The Pepsi from Mexico is also better.

  12. 31

    Evan says

    actually in the book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, he explains how one of the reasons coke is preferred when you know what you’re drinking is because all of the “good feeling” commercials they have.

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