Friday, October 17, 2014

Off the wagon -- for SCIENCE!

Up until tonight, I had been soda- and caffeine-free for more than three weeks. This return to the wagon, like the others, is equal parts cost-cutting and health kick. Long-time readers of this blog have heard this before, of course, but this time it's part of an attempt to bring a bit more consistency and efficacy to my efforts (see: Board of Accountability posts).

Still, I couldn't help but be curious when I saw this green-colored Coke can at the Lulu Express across the street. It was the latest variety, called Coca-Cola Life, available here in the UAE as an import after being released in the UK in August. While I wasn't in the market for a new soft drink or interested in breaking my new streak, I was inspired to spend 3.95 dirhams (about $1.10) and give it a try after hearing the good folks at Skeptics With a K mention it on a recent episode. (Discussion starts at the 5:00 mark.)

How does it measure up? Head below the fold to find out.

Even if you're not familiar with Coke Life, one reading of the can should tell you everything you need to know. The green color itself is a bit of a giveaway, as is the text "lower calorie" and "sweetness from NATURAL SOURCES". (Their caps, not mine.) The former bit of text comes with an asterisk that points to this: "33% less calories vs full sugared colas in GB thanks to stevia extract".

If you want the excruciating details, here you go. Ingredients: Carbonated water, sugar, color (caramel E150d), natural flavorings including caffeine, phosphoric acid, sweetener (steviol glycosides). I was unaware caffeine was a flavoring, but obviously the people of Great Britain have different tastes to us uncultured Americans. It has 89 calories and 22 grams of sugar per can; fat, protein and salt are all zeroes.

It appears this "sparkling soft drink with vegetable extracts with sugar and sweetener" is supposed to be a more "natural" alternative to full-flavored Coke and its zero-calorie, artificially sweetened counterparts Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Setting aside the whole "natural" discussion for a bit, let's get to the important stuff -- is it worth drinking?

My experience got off to a rough start as the smell of Coke Life was heavier than that of Diet Coke, more reminiscent of full-flavor Coke. As the first link in this post will attest, I was (am?) a Diet Coke loyalist who stopped drinking the fully leaded variety about seven or eight years ago. That was right about the time my decision-making on food and drink evolved past "what's on sale?" and actually started taking nutritional value into consideration. Better late than never, I suppose.

Coke Life's taste lacks the syrupy heaviness of full Coke and the crisp, delightful burn of Diet Coke. Plus, the aftertaste bordered on unpleasant and lingered for quite some time. All things considered, I don't think I would drink Coke Life again. If you want the full Coke taste, then drink fully sugared Coke; if you want something resembling that taste but without all the empty calories, then Diet Coke is your best bet, especially as all those scary side effects of aspartame you read about on the Internet are pretty much hooey. Coke Life seems as superfluous as Coke Zero, which apparently only came about because drinking Diet Coke was deemed not manly enough in some quarters. (Clearly these people have never been in a newsroom. Diet Coke flows almost as freely as printer ink around here.)

If I had to guess, I'd say Coke Life exists because Coca-Cola wants to tap into the market of people fleeing the perceived scourge of no-good, scary chemicals and rushing to embrace all things "natural". This is risible on several levels, the most obvious being that a substance such as Coke could ever be considered "natural". Moreover, though, it plays into the fad of chemophobia sweeping the nation these days. Whether it's pumpkin spice lattes, the cookies at Doubletree or the bread at Subway, there always seems to be someone poring over the list of ingredients and sounding the alarm over anything that sounds even vaguely scary. Then they offer "helpful" advice like: “When you look at the ingredients, if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.”

Dr. Steve Novella over at Neurologica pops that little thought bubble.
Let’s see if we can apply this rule of thumb to help us decide what foods are likely to be healthy. Here are some lists of ingredients, see if you can pronounce them:
1- Oleic acid, Linoleic acid, Palmitic acid, Stearic acid, α-Linolenic acid, polyphenols, oleocanthal, oleuropein, aldehydic secoiridoids, flavonoids, acetoxypinoresinol, pinoresinol, hydroxytyrosol
3 – Alpha-Linolenic-Acid, Asparagine, D-Categin, Isoqurctrin, Hyperoside, Ferulic-Acid, Farnesene, Neoxathin, Phosphatidyl-Choline, Reynoutrin, Sinapic-Acid, Caffeic-Acid, Chlorogenic-Acid, P-Hydroxy-Benzoic-Acid, P-Coumaric-Acid, Avicularin, Lutein, Quercitin, Rutin, Ursolic-Acid, Protocatechuic-Acid
I could go on, but you get the point. These are olive oil, coffee, and apples, respectively.
It's a heaping helping of the appeal to nature -- "natural" = good, "unnatural" = bad. You know what else is natural? Arsenic, hemlock and asteroids falling from the sky. You want more of those in your life? You know what's not natural? Shoes. You want to go without those?

Incidentally, this pattern of fearmongering and misinformation bears a striking resemblance to the tactics used by the anti-vaccine movement. It's part of the old Toxin Gambit -- X is toxic, Y contains X, therefore Y is toxic. Never mind the lack of any context for these claims or the refusal to acknowledge that the dose makes the poison. Look! Chemicals! Scaaaaaaaaary.

Coke Life appears to stake its "natural" credentials on the fact it's sweetened by cane sugar and stevia -- an extract of sweetleaf -- rather than high-fructose corn syrup, which is fairly ubiquitous in the United States. Its main appeal seems to be for those whose fear of chemicals and/or artificial sweeteners outstrips their fear of empty calories. It doesn't have the full flavor of Coke, yet it has 89 times the calories of Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Exactly who is this product for if not the "more natural than thou" crowd?

As for me, my curiosity about Coke Life is sated, so I'm going back on the wagon. Back to sucking down copious amounts of water and the occasional lassi. If I am to expand my beverage horizons, maybe tea is the way to go.

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