Home > Ramblings > Pepsi versus Pepsi: the new Pepsi Challenge

Pepsi versus Pepsi: the new Pepsi Challenge

February 27th, 2009

There I was in Target, picking up some mundane supplies, when a display on an aisle end cap caught my eye: four-bottle packs of Pepsi Natural.  Having ventured out from under my rock every once in a while, I was familiar with regular Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Max, and even Crystal Pepsi, but Pepsi Natural was new to my eyes.  Curiosity was running through me like so much caffeine. What was this Pepsi Natural?  How would it compare to the standard, plebeian product?

In one swift move, I snapped up a four-pack, swung around, and snagged a bottle of regular off of the nearby shelf.  It was time for a new Pepsi Challenge, Pepsi on Pepsi.

Pepsi Natural

The first thing I noticed, other than the fact that the “natural” variant was housed in glass bottles while the regular was in plastic, was the price difference.  Including the CRV, the traditional Pepsi 2-liter rang up at $1.89, while the four 12 fl oz bottles of Pepsi Natural set me back $4.69.  Scale that, and you’ll find that regular runs $3.69 per gallon, while super-ultra-premium-natural goes for an astonishing $12.50 per gallon.  $12.50 per gallon!  For sugar water!  Yes, yes, I realize that bottles might affect the price, but should the glass privilege be worth that much?  I mean, that price is in the bottled-beer neighborhood.  Perhaps the contents would justify the difference.

Pepsi Natural is billed as being “all natural” and made with “sparkling water, sugar, and kola nut extract.”  Indeed, the ingredient list has all that and more.  Compared to the normal Pepsi, we find a different sweetener, a different type of fizzy water, an additional color source, different acids, and the addition of the kola nut extract.

Pepsi Natural ingredients
Pepsi Natural ingredient list

The most noticable difference is the exclusion of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in favor of sugar alone.  Some people have made a ruckus in recent years about the virtues of soft drinks sweetened with sugar instead of HFCS.  Most major cola manufacturers made the switch to HFCS in the early 1980s, but some still have small production runs with the old-fashioned sweetener.  Supposedly, Mexican Coca-Cola is sweetened that way, as is some Coke imported for Jewish customers.  Supposedly, the taste is different (better), and possible health effects from HFCS are avoided (never mind the phosphoric acid).  Would the difference be noticable here?  Perhaps not, as regular Pepsi includes both regular sugar and HFCS.

One must also be aware that “natural” doesn’t mean “direct from a plant” or even “organic”; rather, for natural flavors, the chemicals were derived from something that was alive at some point rather than a source like petroleum or coal tar, which are “artificial.”  Either way, you can bet that they went through a lot of processing and refinement before they met the bottle.  Most of the minor ingredients in Pepsi Natural seem to have fairly straightforward routes from plants to bottles, but “natural flavors” remains unappealingly ambiguous.

Enough of that. Time for the taste test.

I let both the regular and natural Pepsi colas chill in the refrigerator overnight.  The next day, I brought them out and poured a glass of each.  Temperature at consumption: 57° F.

The first difference I noticed was the color.  Both were brown, caramel-colored, and clear.  However, the natural Pepsi was much lighter than the regular.  Presumably, the difference was intentional, as they both contain coloring agents.

Pepsi colors (left: regular, right: natural)
Pepsi colors: regular on the left, natural on the right

The next difference was the smell.   While the regular cola had a sweet, somewhat acidic scent, the natural version had barely any smell at all.  Perhaps that was related to the relative effervescence of the drinks: the regular appeared far fizzier, which might have released more aromatic compounds into the air.

Time for a sip.  While the regular version had a biting, acidic feel, the natural felt smoother and more mellow.  The regular mouthfeel was inferior, being somewhat astringent.  There was a grittiness on my tounge and teeth with the regular version that seemed absent with the other.  Overall, the taste profile was very similar.  I think that the natural version had hints of cognac, but even in the non-blind test the two drinks were difficult to distinguish.  Later, a couple of my friends also used the adjective “smoother” when describing Pepsi Natural versus regular Pepsi.

To take carbonation and the differing acids out of the picture, I added 1.2 g of sodium bicarbonate to 180 ml of each soda.  The liquids fizzed madly, then went silent.  I tried each of the now-flat drinks, and they tasted virtually identical: two cloyingly sweet, syrupy brown liquids.  The underlying chemistry and provenance of the sweeteners are very different, but the tastes are pretty much the same.

Regardless of the form, the drinks contained what seemed to be an unhealthy amount of sugar.  Pepsi Natural has slightly less sugar in a 12 fl oz serving, with 38 g versus 42 g for regular, but that’s still nearly a quarter of a cup by volume of crystallized sugar:

Amount of sugar in 12 fl oz of Pepsi (42 g)
Amount of sugar in 12 fl oz of Pepsi (42 g)

Will Pepsi Natural find a permanent home in the market?  Hard to say.  History is littered with failed soft drink sub-brands.  The price differential could be an issue, too: when money is tight, who is going to blow the budget by buying “natural” soda?

Frankly, I find all soft drinks to be far too sweet, and the fizziness is unappealing.  I probably consume no more than a quart of soft drinks of any type in a given year.  In fact, I could finish neither of the sample glasses, so most of the carmel-colored gold went down the drain.

In this Pepsi challenge, I’ll choose option (c): still water.  Tastes better, much healthier, and a lot cheaper.  And all natural, too.

  1. February 27th, 2009 at 10:10 | #1

    Another option is take a little bit of juice and add sparkling water to it too. Gives a little bit of flavor, you dilute the juice so you aren’t drinking as many calories per glass, and the fizziness still gives “feel” of drinking a soda. Works especially well with grape or cranberry juice.

  2. Homan
    February 27th, 2009 at 13:42 | #2

    I enjoy your scientific approach to this challenge. I do, however, wonder if your ‘hint of cognac’ comes from the glass, but I’m guessing you have different glasses for that.

  3. Angela
    February 27th, 2009 at 13:53 | #3

    You’re such a geek. But I dig it. And I’m with you – I’m still voting for water.

  4. TiM
    February 28th, 2009 at 13:49 | #4

    The review was okay until the end where you promote water in an attempt to be witty, saying it too is all natural and tell how you don’t even like soda in the first place. No one cares how little soda you drink and that you find it “unappealing”.

  5. Dee mack
    March 5th, 2009 at 13:19 | #5

    i think that a new pepsi product that is made with more natural products is a good thing no matter what any one does the fact remains that we will still drink colas. from the sounds of it this one is a tad bit better for your body. so if i was to pick between a slightly more healthly one to a highly artifical one i would pick the natural one. although i agree about liking water better. nothing beats that.

  6. March 5th, 2009 at 13:49 | #6

    Sodas sweetened with sugar instead of HFCS are common in Europe too. I don’t drink much but (now that I live in Holland instead of Texas) when I do, it tastes better & doesn’t leave that gross, filmy feeling on my teeth.

  7. Josh
    March 5th, 2009 at 16:26 | #7

    I have found that adding a little bit of fresh lemon or lime juice to regular water satisfies my desire for added flavor in a beverage over just plain old water. It’s much cheaper than buying soda and much healthier.

  8. art
    March 5th, 2009 at 21:40 | #8

    Someone who doesn’t even like soda isn’t the ideal person to be reviewing a new one.

  9. March 6th, 2009 at 01:11 | #9

    That package design is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think you’re the right person to be reviewing this though. I’d be happy to do a taste test, but I’d have to convince Pepsi to send that stuff to Canada first.
    Good review until the last two paragraphs.

  10. March 6th, 2009 at 10:12 | #10

    “Supposedly, Mexican Coca-Cola is sweetened that way, as is some Coke imported for Jewish customers. ”

    No. Not supposedly. It is sweetened that way. As are most sodas made in Canada. HFCS is used in the US because real sugar is too expensive (hence the huge cost difference for the Pepsi product) thanks to corn subsidies.

    As to the Coke and Pepsi available during Passover as far as I know it’s not imported. The cost is the same as the “regular” stuff. For those looking for it the cans of Coke are marked with the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) label and the 2-liter bottles have different color caps (same with Pepsi).

  11. Sam
    March 6th, 2009 at 10:53 | #11

    Your color observations switch from statement: “However, the natural Pepsi was much darker than the regular” to image+caption.

  12. March 6th, 2009 at 11:57 | #12

    Incidentally…Mexican Coke comes in the same 16-oz bottle people in the US knew and loved up until the late 80s.

    Boy I miss the days of Coke with sugar in the 16oz bottles……nothing like it on a hot summer day.

  13. maddie
    March 6th, 2009 at 12:01 | #13

    i hate pepsi, regardless.

  14. March 6th, 2009 at 12:04 | #14

    Havana Cola is my favorite “natural” soda. All-natural with a splash of lime.

  15. Annie
    March 6th, 2009 at 19:55 | #15

    I’m interested to try this.
    Coke Blak was the best though.

  16. March 7th, 2009 at 13:36 | #16

    i say they should scrap the new designs they conceived and use this design with clear plastic bottles…

    im in love with the design of the bottle i could care less about the contents, lol

  17. March 10th, 2009 at 13:03 | #17

    Congrats on being featured in Kottke.

    I have to say that the wine terms are a bit silly when used in the context of lowly Pepsi.

  18. Antonio G
    March 16th, 2009 at 12:39 | #18

    Hmm…this article just points out the amount of useless information on the internet. Here we have someone who doesn’t drink Pepsi (or soda in general) reviewing its tastes.

  19. Jeff
    March 23rd, 2009 at 09:37 | #19

    I paid less than $2 for my 4-pack.

  20. Jeff
    March 23rd, 2009 at 09:44 | #20

    It tastes like Red Bull Cola.

  21. KRISSYANN
    March 24th, 2009 at 17:02 | #21

    I for one miss the Pepsi of the 80’s. It hasnt tasted the same since it went to plastic. I want the pepsi back that made your nose fizz and the glass bottle that you can freeze until it gets slushy…..mmmmmm

  22. Sylko
    March 26th, 2009 at 18:08 | #22

    Natural Pepsi tastes nothing like Regular Pepsi. It tastes like Coca Cola.

  23. Wraith
    March 28th, 2009 at 22:48 | #23

    It is not Pepsi. It is carbonated molasses. And it’s not just me that thought so, my wife and friends all had the same reaction.

  24. Dhea
    March 29th, 2009 at 02:33 | #24

    We were so surprised to find Pepsi Natural at our grocer & picked a 4-pack up today. We have started a natural diet recently and were really missing getting to have a cola with our popcorn. This is such a treat and it tastes pretty darn good. I’m thankful Pepsi came out with it and I hope it does well. We’ll keep buying it … it’s worth it, it tastes good and it’s not full of artificial crap! Sometimes, water or juice doesn’t hit the spot like a nice icey cold Pepsi does. :)

  25. rokinray@aol.com
    April 1st, 2009 at 17:22 | #25

    Coke lovers,
    I loved this natural stuff and hope Coke launches one soon also. It taste like I remember Pepsi tasting when I was a kid. Finally a Pepsi product this Coke and Dr Pepper guy can stomach!

  26. Diane
    April 10th, 2009 at 11:47 | #26

    Just an FYI I emailed Pepsi on this one and its not a permanent soda. Its a temporary KOSHER version offered right now during Passover. I was disappointed because I too like it and would like to continue purchasing it. So if you like stock up now.

  27. Rob
    April 12th, 2009 at 10:59 | #27

    @ Jason Kratz:
    In Canada, soda/pop (along with everything else) IS made with HFCS, except it’s labeled as “glucose/fructose” here.

  28. Derek Yeager
    April 14th, 2009 at 14:35 | #28

    Man I love it wish it a around for along time. It’s great

  29. April 17th, 2009 at 19:45 | #29

    I’ve been buying up the Pepsi natural since spotting it a couple weeks ago – it tastes a lot different – better, fresher, not so sweet. And I avoid anything with HFCS usually, but have stopped buying soda because it’s too sweet and I don’t like drinking out of plastic (acidic soda in plastic doesn’t sound like a good combination – what’s leaching out of the bottle?) anyway, I think it tastes great and I hope they keep it!

  30. George
    April 20th, 2009 at 17:55 | #30

    “Sparkling water” and “carbonated water” are the same thing. I think using the word “Sparkling” is just a fancy way to say “carbonated” and makes you think its something different.

  31. May 14th, 2009 at 17:26 | #31

    I do know that you will spend more money for better or healthier foods. The artificial subs the real thing to keep down the cost for the manufacturers to make the foods, or an item. We have shortage in real food supplies, in some cases. Never know what chemical reacts in you.

  32. September 9th, 2009 at 11:19 | #32

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  33. Daniel
    April 6th, 2010 at 15:04 | #33

    I love the people who recommend drinking sparkling water with some juice. As a coke lover, i can tell you that there is no comparison. Its like asking a wine lover to drink Welches grape juice.

  34. September 10th, 2010 at 13:43 | #34

    I think what we all need to remember here is that sodapop was designed (and maintains the design) to be a cheap, tasty, beverage-version of candy. A treat. Its not supposed to be good for you, and the only reason people are worried about how good it is for you is because they’re consuming too much of it. The moment you have to look at the label of something to inquire what type of sweetener they use to produce the product is the moment you should realize that maybe you’re just consuming too many products. I’m not a naturalist or anything, I don’t live off the grid, I’m not a hippie…etc. But everything in moderation folks. Here’s a tip for people who are way too concerned with what products contain: if the product you’re buying even has a label on it, its probably not as good for you as you want anyways, so don’t buy it. To those people who have never attended high school chemistry, don’t ever attack high fructose corn syrup, because you and whoever else gave you the idea that its bad have absolutely no clue how to justify your statements. Referring to hfcs as “chemical junk” or anything sounding similar just makes you look uneducated. Every juice, every fruit, every berry you could ever find on this sweet earth (pun intended) has fructose in it, and some of them in much higher quantities than you think. Ask yourself: do you really know how your body processes sugar(s)? Do you know what fructose is? Do you even know what a sugar is? I don’t mean what your health food store employee says on the subject, I mean the actual chemical reaction. The molecular process that occurs where complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple carbs, simple carbs broken down into complex sugars, complex sugars broken down into simple sugars, and all the way down, eventually to glucose. All fructose is is a longer chain of sugars than the single sugar (glucose). Same with sucrose, dextrose, maltose, and a bunch others. they all break down to glucose. They are all made up (in lamen’s terms) of more than one glucose molecule. That’s it. There’s no mystery, no chemicals, no crazy “bad-for-you” stuff. Here’s an analogy: if you were to drink a glass of pepsi, or a glass of orange juice, the only difference in the composition of the sugars contained within these two beverages would be the fact that the pepsi contains MOSTLY only fructose, whereas the orange juice contains fructose, along with basically every other sugar in the spectrum in close to equivalent amounts with respect to one another’s percentage by volume contained within the liquid. The only reason orange juice is better for you, with strict regard involving sugar-related factors only, is that the process that your body uses to break down sugar molecules is one that involves spending time to do so, and the longer the sugar (or carbohydrate) molecule, the longer it takes that process to reach the square root of that particular molecule being digested (glucose, of course). So, in essence, drinking a beverage that has all different sizes and lengths of sugars and carbs means that your body will be able to use the glucose immediately, the sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose and every other one I haven’t named all at different times respective to the time it takes that particular molecule to break all the way down to glucose to be used, effectively stretching out your sugar digestion over time, and thus keeping your energy more constant. Having a drink with mostly just fructose, however, would imply that most of the molecules of fructose would break down to glucose mostly all at the same time, which causes your body to try to burn this new sudden influx of newly-broken-down glucose all at once, which causes a spike in energy then a crash. Your body will burn what it can immediately, and everything it can’t burn immediately will be transformed into fat. So basically what I’m saying is fructose isn’t bad for you (chemically speaking). It doesn’t have secrets, and its not evil. What is evil is the fact that most people are willing to drink a six pack of sodapop per day, but aren’t willing to run 10 miles per day. And by the way, as far as diets go – this is to the couple that made a comment about going to a natural diet, and also to the comment that was made about “natural foods” costing more. If I may reiterate what the original poster said: using the word “natural” when titling a food means absolutely didly. You’re spending more on food that has different ingredient sources, but in effect, isn’t any better for your body, simply because you’ve fallen the unwitting victim to a very good advertisement, and also because you didn’t attend enough science classes, and possibly also due to the fact that while you’re willing to spend more money, you were never willing to spend an hour or two doing cardiovascular exercises instead of spending an hour or two at the health food store in an attempt to be “green,” “hip,” “environmentally sensitive,” “natural,” “organic” or whatever. A game of tennis will do more good for your body than choosing natural pepsi over regular, cliff bars over snickers, organic apples versus completely awesome chemically and hormone-enhanced Giant Apples of Destiny. I don’t know about the rest of the population, but whatever hormone they put in completely awesome Epic Milk of Destiny makes me feel like completely awesome Man of Strength and secondarily but not to a lesser degree of Destiny. And if it makes teeny boppers bodies all over the country develop faster, I’m all for that too. Sorry that this turned into a rant, I really did aim it to be educational. Send all love/hatemail to dizenexxus@hotmail.com. I’m not a blogger but maybe I have room for a new hobby. Lol. -Garrett

  35. September 10th, 2010 at 13:44 | #35

    WOW that was a lot longer than I intended. Completely sorry! If anyone wants to summarize feel free lol. -Garrett

  36. Madeline
    November 1st, 2010 at 16:46 | #36

    Wow thats cool!

  37. Madeline
    November 1st, 2010 at 16:47 | #37

    OMG HE TYPED THAT IN A MINUTE!!!!!!!!!!!

  38. Madeline
    November 1st, 2010 at 16:47 | #38

    :O

  39. erika
    January 20th, 2011 at 15:27 | #39

    i feel like this is just i gimmick to the ‘health wave’ … here in canada they arent allowed to use HFCS, so pepsi natural is just the same thing as what is sold here, but with a different label. 355ml still has about 7 teaspoons of white sugar. ick !

  40. December 13th, 2013 at 17:53 | #40

    What’s funny is the last line on the ingredients “based on a 2000 calorie diet”. I’ve never even heard of that before in Aus, average daily diet in Australia is 1600 calories. Why is America 400 calories more?

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