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Deja vu? The new Coke Zero tastes a lot like … the old Coke Zero

Coca-Cola has reformulated Coke Zero, but the difference isn’t startling.  (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
Coca-Cola has reformulated Coke Zero, but the difference isn’t startling. (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
By Emily Heil Washington Post

Winston Churchill once famously opined that “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Did the executives at Coca-Cola HQ heed this warning from across the pond (and the decades)?

That’s the pending question for fans of Coke Zero Sugar, whose formula the company retooled this summer. In other words: Is the tinkering with a beloved product akin to the 1980s debacle that ensued with the replacement of its original version with New Coke, a drink so wildly reviled the company ultimately reverted to Coke Classic?

The reviews are only now starting to trickle in. The new Coke Zero, which features tweaked packaging – namely, a bold claim that it is “NOW More Delicious” – has slowly been making its way onto shelves since the company announced the change last month. (When I attempted in late July to find the new version, I had to go to three stores before finding it – and then only in 24 packs of cans.)

While there was justifiable concern and even some outrage at the news that Coke Zero was being reformulated, reaction on social media from those who have actually tasted the new version is, so far, mixed. There seems to be grousing from some loyalists and a few praising the new version.

To see if we could render a verdict, I enlisted two colleagues, both of whom are longtime Coke Zero stans, to sample the goods. We tasted the new and old versions side by side – and we even added a tasting of Pepsi’s rival formula since the competitor had seized the moment and has been trying to woo disgruntled Coke Zero drinkers in a new marketing campaign that encourages users to post on social media with the hashtag #MyCokeBreakUp.

A scan of the contents listed on the label (aspartame is the sweetener here) confirmed what the Coke overlords had promised: namely, that the ingredients themselves weren’t changing. The company said the revamped drink “optimizes existing Coca-Cola Zero Sugar flavors and existing ingredients.”

The order in which they were listed didn’t change, either. But that didn’t necessarily tell us much about the taste of what was inside since the “natural flavors” contained in both could theoretically vary widely. Once we started sipping, it became clear that we weren’t looking at a dramatic difference. “It’s definitely subtle,” one colleague noted to nods all around.

Here’s where things got interesting: One of our tasters thought the new version tasted slightly more like the full-sugar deal. This, she thought, was a good thing. “The new one tastes even more like Coke,” she said. “It’s like the old Coke Zero without that overwhelming, tongue-coating sweet feeling.”

But another had a different take: She’s been drinking Coke Zero for so long, she no longer thinks of it as a less-caloric version of Coke but rather a product in and of itself that she likes independently of its sugar-packed ancestor. “I don’t like the taste of real Coke anymore,” she noted.

“So I’m not looking for something to mimic Coke.” She found very little different between the old and new, though. “If we weren’t doing this tasting, I would have just thought they changed the label,” she said.

I’m in the camp of folks who prefer the taste of the regular cola, and so I agree with the first taster on my starting point. And I could still detect that aspartame tang in the new Coke Zero, but it seemed ever-so-slightly less prominent than in the previous iteration.

In fact, I could almost imagine someone slipping me a Coke Zero in place of the very occasional fountain soda I drink, a la those old Maxwell House ads – as long as there was plenty of ice to distract me, and a cheeseburger, probably.

We ended our bubbly session with a taste of Pepsi’s zero-calorie brand, which we agreed had a bit more tartness than its rival. “I’m not crazy about this,” one of our tasters determined. It’s a significantly different product in another respect, too. The caffeine in the Pepsi is more than double the amount than in its rival (115 mg in a 20-ounce bottle to Coke Zero’s 57). Neither taster was a convert despite the hopes of Pepsi’s ad wizards.

So instead of the bold claim on its new label, it seems Coke Zero should use a line that no ad agency would ever approve: “NOW Ever So Slightly More Delicious, According to Some People, But Overall Not Very Different?”

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