Saturday, August 9, 2008


Soft drinks not based on fruits or vegetables are considered amongst junk foods as they do not provide any significant nutrition to the consumers. On the contrary they are severely being criticized for a number of health problems they are supposed to have fawned ever since the venerable John S Pemberton of Atlanta introduced to the world his classic beverage by name Coca Cola 122 years ago in 1886. How a drink he thought was a health beverage would become a major industrial success and come under critical scrutiny from the consumers and nutritionists alike is a different story. Kept as a secret until the labeling regulations forced them to declare the ingredients in descending order, Coca Cola built up a reputation which was challenged only by Pepsi Company with its Pepsi brand of cola beverage. Pemberton solemnly declared that his unique drink contains "no added preservatives or artificial flavors and was made from best spices from around the world". Some where on the way it was also known that Coca Cola replaced the kola nut extract in which caffeine was the major stimulant, with pure isolated caffeine.

The market duel between the two giants, Coke and Pepsi are legendary and the sole leadership in the industry globally rested with one or the other for a long time. One of the major objections against these soft drinks was the presence of caffeine, stimulant not advisable for children and pregnant women, besides being habit forming. Use of phosphoric acid as the acidulant instead of organic acids like citric, fumaric, malic or other permitted ones also was a point of contention. The generally adverse effect of soft drinks on dental health is well known though the severity will depend on the quantity and frequency of consumption. While in many developed countries the per ca pita consumption is very high, the figures in countries like India are relatively insignificant. Of course the upper income groups, even in India may be consuming soft drinks more regularly and are susceptible to the ill effects associated with them.

It may be part of history that CFTRI, Mysore broke the stranglehold of Coca Cola on the Indian consumer in 1977 by developing 'Double Seven' almost similar to Coke when the latter was forced to leave the country, failing to reveal the recipe to answer critics that the drink contained habit forming ingredients. 'Double Seven' ended up on the chopping block once Pepsi Co gained entrance after Narasimha Rao's economic liberalization policies were launched in early nineties. Subsequently Coke also entered India and the two warring soft drink giants have been fighting it out to gain supremacy ever since. The recent trend has been for them to diversify their products by shifting the emphasis on fruit based drinks and they may yet be the harbingers of shift in consumer behavior, away from caffeine based colas to nutrition oriented fruit drinks.

Coke, which lost ground briefly in 1980 because of its attempts to change the 'revered' formula, abandoned any idea of tinkering with Pemberton's original recipe too drastically and is trying novel promotional techniques to score over competition. Most recently it started re-using the original slogan declaring that Coke is free from preservatives and artificial flavors to convince the consumers that the good old Coke is always safe. How far this message will sink in is any body's guess. In the mean time Pepsi has put out in UK a new product called Pepsi Raw, first new launch in the last 10 years, with the cane sugar being replaced with High Fructose Corn Syrup( HFCS) and claiming a reduction of calories from 120 to 90 in a 300 ml pack. It is a move fraught with risk as HFCS is increasingly being implicated in obesity amongst American consumers. While ordinary consumers may be fooled by this switch, more than any thing the consideration has always been economical as HFCS costs significantly less than white sugar, besides being much easier to handle.

There is a view amongst consumer activists that as a part of national policy whether it is possible to consider to insist on a declaration on the labels that 'regular consumption of soft drinks is harmful to the health'. There may be legal and scientific hurdle in taking such a decision. But how much it will hurt the business must be kept in mind before considering such actions


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