Big Metal Pill

1 06 2007

Vitamin Coke

By Jill Ettinger

Coca Cola recently introduced Diet Coke Plus, the number one selling diet beverage now enhanced with vitamins and minerals. Driving through NJ the other day I saw a giant billboard lavishly touting the new super soft drink, and suddenly a sense of irony and queasiness overcame me.

I’ve steered away from soda for more than the last decade. When I do indulge, it is definitely organic. However, I recently drank a Diet Coke – well a few sips anyway. Life is nothing if not a series of experiments, right? I was on a cross-continental flight, and for some reason my travel agent booked me an aisle seat instead of my preferred window. Usually I am peering out at the passing country, self-supplied with snacks and beverages. But as the drink cart filled my only view,  I became curiously up for some research, and asked the flight attendant to pour me half-cup of the caramel colored poison, er, refreshing beverage.

First thing I noticed was its lack of effervescence. My recollection was that of the two leading cola brands, Coke was the bubblier, but this serving bordered on brown water. I started to wonder, do bubbles cost a lot? Are they something that can slowly be skimped on without the customer knowing they are suddenly getting less fizz for the same price? How does one really measure bubbliness anyway? It’s not a listed ingredient, and the nutrition panel makes no mention of sparkle content. Hmmm.

One of my favorite memories of childhood was the engaging experience of drinking soda. I remember smiling in anticipation as I put my nose close to a freshly popped can or bottle, and feel the spray of fizz on my face, and taste the first tingle on my tongue as I sipped the syrupy liquid. Nostalgic recollection met with somber reality as the plastic cup sat in an uneventful placidity on my tray table.

Second thing I noticed was the soapy chemical-like flavor. When I was a frequent soda drinker, it was rarely diet drinks (Cherry Coke was my absolute favorite), so I have few memories of what this particular flavor actually tastes like. (And I grew up in what I suppose is called a Pepsi family.) Perhaps I’ve spent too much time with juicy organic fruits and high mountain oolong teas, but soft this drink was not.  It was beyond medicinal, and  unlike medicine (where one knows there is  benefit) the taste is more bearable. With the addition of vitamins and minerals only now joining the formula, it’s puzzling to consider that for the last several decades people have been washing down this diet drink not only under the guise of good-for-them, but good-tasting. What came to mind as I winced down the last few drops, was that this is a very strange tasting pill, with or without B-12.

But perhaps even more interesting than vitaminizing the anti-vitamin is Coke’s latest acquisition, Glaceau. It’s not the $4.1 billion they invested that I find most alarming. It’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing retrofitting that the soda monsters surely plan to exercise with covert caution as they integrate. Glaceau revolutionized the water category with brands Vitamin Water and Smart Water. Though they’ve positioned themselves in the very mainstream market in the last few years (campaigns like Formula 50  co-conspired with rapper 50 Cent), Glaceau is treading some very murky waters with this news.

Though there are no hard facts to prove this, isn’t it rumored that Coca Cola’s secret recipe has highly addictive properties besides caffeine? And what about the recent stolen recipe caper conveniently painting Coke in the “original” leader light? One wonders if the whole thing wasn’t just a publicity stunt intended to do stir up the good old soda wars (Pepsi Challenge anyone?). Just a few weeks ago, I was at the All Things Organic Show in Chicago, which is part of the Power of Five show (or what I often  call the crumbling, opulent, Power of Jive), where  five food industry trade shows are combined in one massive McCormick Place. Leading brands of Babylon are present, like Kraft, General Mills, Nestle and of course, Coke. I stepped into their booth area with hesitation. A neon emptiness filled the freshly carpeted stall, which is considerably larger than my spacious two-bedroom apartment. Sales people in polyester tried their best to look  hip and relaxed, which is commendable considering they were probably all jacked on the Full Throttle energy drink on display. What is this booth going to look like next year I wonder?

Dropping $4.1 billion is no sneeze. The Glaceau buyout is a HUGE investment for the soda company. (They even give Vitamin and Smart Water top billing when you go to the product page on the Coca Cola website.) Part of me hopes and wishes the beast has been blessed with an opportunity to use their marketing power to promote not only healthy water, but an alternative to soda in general. At the same time though, there’s part of me incredibly suspicious about “flavorings” and secret ingredients finding their way into more and more healthy beverages. I guess only time will tell. I’m reminded of a trip I took to Santiago Chile in 2000 for the New Year celebration. The city of six million collected like fireflies in the center of town around the Coca Cola-sponsored Christmas tree decorated in its own likeness. Maybe they’ve just realized their inevitable destination lies not in nutrition after all, but as shiny aluminum ornaments.




One response

7 06 2007
The Conscience of Consciousness « InnerContinental

[…] entirely the point of the merger. Whole Foods is buying out Wild Oats at roughly 12% of what Coke just paid for Glaceau. But it’s much more significant a purchase than the soda giant gulping down Smart Water. Glaceau […]

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