Is This The End of Our Hero, Coke Zero, Part III: The Final Zeronation

The New Coke Zero Sugar can, which is all red with black lettering.

News arrives to me today that the Coca-Cola company is yet again tweaking both the formula and look of Coke Zero (more formally known as Coke Zero Sugar, but literally no one outside Coke’s marketing department calls it that). This is the second time Coke has tweaked the Zero formula, the first time being in 2017. Coke Zero fundamentally differs from Diet Coke, Coke’s other zero-calorie cola, in that it is based on the “classic Coke” taste profile, whereas Diet Coke was a new flavor profile at the time of its release (and indeed was the basis for the infamous New Coke). Coke Zero also differs from Diet Coke in that it’s traditionally been marked more toward men than women, hence the lack of the word “diet” anywhere on the labeling, because as we all know men don’t go on diets, that would make them look weak in front of all the other men, who would fall on them and tear out their viscera or something sad like that. The new taste and look are apparently debuting in Manhattan tonight (it’s “Manhattanhenge“) and then will start appearing in US stores this month.

As with last time the formula was tweaked, people are wondering what I, who basically lives on Coke Zero (not because I have fragile masculinity I SWEAR but because I prefer the taste to Diet Coke), thinks of the plan to fiddle with the taste profile. My response is basically the same as last time: If it ends up tasting more like regular Coke, great, because that’s what I want; if it goes horribly wrong and I hate it, well, then, it’s a very fine time for me to give up my cola addiction, which as a 52-year-old man is probably doing neither my pancreas or my kidneys any favors. That said, the last time Coke tweaked the Zero formula, I was perfectly fine with it; it was only subtly different. I imagine they’re not going to mess with it too much this time around either. I suspect I will be perfectly fine with it again. I will let you know what I think when I get the new stuff.

What I actually find more interesting is the new look, which has totally gone over to a red can after a decade at least of black being the primary color profile for the brand. This suggests to me two things — one, Coke is going to start trending away from making Coke Zero their “dude” zero-calorie beverage and open up the marketing to a wider audience of consumers, and two, Coke also realizes sugared sodas are a consumer sector that is likely in a permanent state of decline, both as consumer tastes change and as governments start taxing sugared sodas as the empty-calorie-laden candy water health hazards they are. Every marketing tweak brings Coke Zero that much closer to just being “Coke.” Diet Coke can’t do it — after nearly forty years its own brand is too strong — but Coke Zero can do it just fine. It was meant to be just like Coke from the beginning.

In a larger sense, I am struck with the recent ascendance of the “Zero Sugar” labeling in the sodasphere. It’s not just Coke who uses it: Dr. Pepper now has “Zero Sugar” lines, as does Pepsi, and other smaller soda companies as well. The era of “diet” sodas appears to be ending, again, because the soda companies don’t want to associate lack of sugar in their soda with commentary about losing weight or getting healthy. This is honestly just as well, since at this point it appears deeply questionable whether drinking unsugared sodas is either healthy, or helps with managing weight. And, again, fragile masculinity doesn’t “diet.” So, fine: “Zero Sugar” it is.

So, yes: Behold the New New Coke Zero (Sugar), also possibly the soon-to-be-new-old-Coke (but not, to be very clear, the new-old-New-Coke). I will almost certainly drink it! And it will probably be just fine.

— JS

42 Comments on “Is This The End of Our Hero, Coke Zero, Part III: The Final Zeronation”

  1. When I lived in the US, I preferred regular cherry Coke as my morning wake-up drink, and caffeine-free regular Coke the rest of the day. Imagine my disappointment when we moved to Belfast, UK, and I couldn’t find CF Coke at all (except diet), and most of the cherry Coke here is Coke Zero, which I’ve tried but wasn’t crazy about.

    I was pleasantly surprised to discover Coca Cola Zero Sugar Zero Caffeine at my local Tesco (big supermarket in the UK). I liked it much better than I liked the flavor profile of US Coke Zero.

    Imagine my disappointment now that I can’t find it anymore. I keep looking…

    :-(

  2. “pancreas and kidneys” – really? I suspect – especially these days, but generally – if there is a long term risk it’s fairly low down the scale, if, for example, you also drive, or eat meat, or doughnuts …

    Not that I actually know anything about these things, not even the Wikipedia level.

    I was going with diet root beer but the big brands don’t taste right and the others are harder to find. Switched to diet Dr. Pepper with no regrets. Modern Coke never seemed like a plausible option for regular consumption.

    Let the soda wars begin!

  3. lif strand – www.lifstrand.com – I write, therefore I am. Unless I'm taking photos. Or making art. Or not.
    Lif S

    I don’t drink soda at all, mind you, so I have no business putting in my two cents here, but seems to me that it would be better to drink regular Coca Cola than to drink Coke Zero that’s supposed to taste the same except it contains artificial sweeteners. I don’t see aspartame as something a person should choose to consume, if health concerns are part of the choice.

  4. I recently discovered Vanilla Coke Zero With Coffee and it’s surprisingly not bad. Actually, pretty good as a pick me up on a hot summer afternoon.

  5. Rev. Gina Pond – Switzerland – A Wiccan Christian pastor living in Zurich, Switzerland. Co-founder of the Open Source Alexandrian Tradition (st4r.org) and Leadership Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance (progressivechristianalliance.org).
    RevGina

    I feel you, Nightshade1972! I can’t have caffeine or sugar for a bunch of reasons, and I love Coke, but caffeine free-zero sugar Coke is practically Unobtainium in most places. (Particularly here in Switzerland!) If I see it when I do my shopping, I always pick up a 6 pack!

  6. It’s not just sodas that use “zero” instead of diet. Both Powerade and Gatorade have “Zero” lines.

  7. As RevGina alludes, the caffeine-free version is the one I wish they’d bring back, or at least make available in more markets. I haven’t been able to get that since April last year. I fortunate not to have any problem with caffeine, but I’d rather not drink caffeinated drinks in the evening.

    The odd case turns up on Amazon with graphic-card-level mark-ups and I’ve almost, almost bought it.

  8. More important than the taste is whether you can find the stuff. Coke Zero (Sugar) Vanilla is my favourite but neither it nor its non-vanilla cousin stay on my local Kroger & Safeway shelves for long. Guess that means they are popular?

  9. Probably the keto/low carb thing that is leading the push to “zero sugar” branding?

    I like Coke Zero too, in the little cans, because they are cute. Does that increase the chances of me being eviscerated by (not) Manly-Men?

  10. One thing to remember is that both colas and citrus sodas are very acidic and thus, even if zero sugar, not good for your teeth. At least rinse mouth with water after drinking, preferably light teeth brushing.

    Note: hibiscus tea is really bad in terms of acid. I used to drink before bed and because there was no sugar did not brush.

  11. Have you ever tried Olipop? Available at Whole Foods or direct order from their website. It’s the first soda substitute that I’ve tried which actually tasted good. And apparently it’s not terrible for you! Highly recommend giving it a try.

  12. mknelson101 – An ardent Oregon native plant restoration gardener, I grew up in the woods east of Portland and spent my summers camping and working through the Camp Fire organization. WoHeLo! They taught me not to roast food on Cascara sticks and where to look for huckleberries. And a lot of valuable skills that kept me alive while hiking through the Northwest woods. I volunteer as a Certifier for Backyard Habitats and am happiest getting my hands in the soil. Favorite quote: " ...and all this depends on two inches of top soil and fact that it rains." Anon.
    MK

    Last time I checked the news about sugar substitutes from your mainstream nutritional scientists ( looking for the weight gain cure and the big pay off if they find that it is nor a reasonable diet and some exercise), was all bad.
    If I was not busy erradicating the curly dock in my native flower garden I would look it up for you.

    Basically: substitutes for sugar, such as they are so far, do not fool your body. It knows you tried to cheat. You end up hungrier.

    The news about saccrine and a few other packet sugar substitutes is they may contribute to cancer.

    I have explained this several times to my sibling who lives and coffee and sweet and low.

    I vote ( for selfish reasons of really enjoying your books and taking nice mental health vacations reading them) that you abstain from the whole Coke thing. Go cold turkey. Write a book kind of about it and live long and prosper.

  13. Which do I prefer, Diet Coke or Coke Zero? That’s easy: Diet Pepsi.

    Actually, we rarely drink any soda, but go with the Diet Pepsi (or Diet Coke) when having pizza or a burger. Otherwise, plain New York City tap water all the way.

  14. I’m always skeptical when a brand TELLS me something is new and “improved” or as in this case, “NOW more delicious.”

    We’ll see, my red can…we will see.

    {Gives can a side-eye and sips carefully…}

  15. As for diet/zero soda being unhealthy, I would have to read the labels to know—but I agree with MK about fake sugar being bad. (So I take coffee with only cream)

    As for near beer/pretend beer/.o5% alcohol, I have indeed read the labels: The health varies widely. For now, in my grocery store, I find Budweiser Zero to be the best.

  16. I did a blind taste test between the new and the old Coke Zero in the UK. I could tell there was a difference, but it was very subtle. It hasn’t bothered me at all, I’m glad to say.

  17. I wonder if it has the aspartame bitter after taste that ruins most of the diet sodas for me.

    If they’ve been able to mask that then I’ll definitely give it a try!

  18. Matthew Appleton – Ashburn, VA – A dad and loving husband who is also an easily distracted sf&f junkie, LEGO enthusiast, Phillies fan, and writer wannabe who really has too many other responsibilities to be working on his many different on-going projects.
    Matthew

    At least they haven’t changed the Coke Zero name. I prefer Pepsi Max — which was rebranded as Pepsi Zero a few years ago. I don’t think there’s a difference between the Zero and Max versions, but I still can’t stop calling it Pepsi Max.

  19. Huh. Guess they found another sweetener that will save them $0.00013 per can, or doesn’t turn into liquid ass the day the soda expires.

  20. Hope Griffin Diaz – North Carolina – So, to borrow from a popular shirt, I love Jesus but I cuss a little. Well, a lot. In fact, I just don't believe Jesus really gives a shit about the word fuck. He does care if you say f you or go f yourself. But a general adjective? Nah. I am married to the love of my life, Louie (aka Luis) and have an adult child, Christy. My mum, Nancy, is still with us and active in our lives. I love to read, I fancy myself an amateur gardener, I am owned by a large black part machine coon cat named Samwise aka #SamSam and a Border Collie/Australian Cattle dog mix named Daisy. I knit. I craft. I sew. These are at my leisure and are hobbies. I don't take commissions nor do I do alterations. I'm an aspiring human being. I battle several mental illnesses including depression, major panic disorder, agoraphobia, germaphobia, claustrophobia, and some other assorted illnesses. I also have fibromyalgia and have had numerous traumatic brain injuries (into the double digits now). I am not able to drive more than a few miles at night. I don't know where this blog is going ... if anywhere.
    Hope

    I drink Coke Zero if I drink Coke 90% of the time. But there are times when I just NEED an glass bottle of Coke. There is just nothing like it. But, Ford the most part, Zero does it for me.

  21. Putting non-diet soda in the red can where I might accidentally drink it? Arrgh, no!

    I might have (sugar) Coke once every month or two, usually along with fast food, and I really dislike just about every artificially sweetened soda since cyclamates went away, especially since so many of them say “we’ve got a sweetener that’s not horrible but the flavor degrades in a few months so we’ll add some Yukky Acesulfame K as a backup.”

    I’d rather have the fizzy waters with flavor but no sweetener, or iced tea (unsweetened if it’s good, dosed with lemon and sugar if it’s not.) My fallback sugary sodas are Dr Pepper and Cherry Coke.

    My wife drinks Diet Coke, a few cans a day, doesn’t like the sugary stuff, hates Diet Pepsi. Both of us agree that stevia, while natural, tastes horrible.

  22. As long as it remains easy to tell sugar/high fructose corn syrup Coke from Coke Zero, it’s fine by me.
    Generally I find sucralose (the sweetener in Coke Zero) to be the least-unpalatable of the no-calorie sweeteners.

    I just wish all food and drink manufacturers had to put the kind of sweetener clearly on the front label, and not buried deep in the ingredients. I don’t like aspartame or saccharine, but I loathe stevia and it’s in freaking everything.

    Like most foods, the health data on no-calorie sweeteners is pretty mixed, mostly because unless a food is either really, really great (leafy greens!) or really, really bad (uh, smoking) it’s hard to get a firm answer given the huge variability in humans and their diet.

  23. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    TimeLiebe

    Bo Lindbergh – you laugh, I’ve actually seen “Mexican Coke” (Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico, using sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup) on sale as the “healthier” alternative to regular U.S. Coke!

    I won’t say I never drink carbonated sodas (I had a couple Mexican Cokes a few years back to see what everyone was on about, and I had a regular Coke once at a McDonalds because they don’t sell unsweetened iced tea and they were out of coffee!), but the only soda I drink on a semi-regular basis is A&W Root Beer, and that only when I pass by one of the few remaining freestanding A&Ws in Cortland, NY on our way to or from Ithaca where our niece Julie lives! Given it’s a half-hour/45-minute drive just to the A&W, and an additional half-hour on back roads to Ithaca, that’s only a few times a year….

    Of course, I drink a lot of mochas at Starbucks, so that’s probably just as bad! Though I find as I get older that I prefer my iced coffee unsweetened, and if the coffee’s good even without milk.

  24. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    TimeLiebe

    Bo Lindbergh – you laugh, I’ve actually seen “Mexican Coke” (Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico, using sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup) on sale as the “healthier” alternative to regular U.S. Coke!

    I won’t say I never drink carbonated sodas (I had a couple Mexican Cokes a few years back to see what everyone was on about, and I had a regular Coke once at a McDonalds because they don’t sell unsweetened iced tea and they were out of coffee!), but the only soda I drink on a semi-regular basis is A&W Root Beer, and that only when I pass by one of the few remaining freestanding A&Ws in Cortland, NY on our way to or from Ithaca where our niece Julie lives! Given it’s a half-hour/45-minute drive just to the A&W, and an additional half-hour on back roads to Ithaca, that’s only a few times a year….

    Of course, I drink a lot of mochas at Starbucks, so that’s probably just as bad! Though I find as I get older that I prefer my iced coffee unsweetened, and if the coffee’s good even without milk or cream.

  25. I think the decline in sugar consumption is based on the increasing understanding that carbohydrates make you fat. Ketogenic diets are effective at fat loss, so the former “SUPER PROTEIN” foods that still had massive amounts of carbs in them, which would be great if you were heading to the gym to burn all those carbs off and build some muscle mass with those proteins, are now trending towards “NO CARBOHYDRATES” which is what most of us couch lizards need in order to effectively burn off the fat we have stored up over the years.

    I’m glad to see it. I haven’t drank soda in years, but if they get it to the point where it is zero carbs and doesn’t give me cancer, I might give it a shot again.

  26. I’ve cut back on caffeinated stuff but still prefer Coke Zero Sugar (with Cherry) when I do. As John noted, about everyone has changed their names to “Zero Sugar” from diet and now that the various companies have caught up with demand (or whatever limited the supply at times over the last year), you can actually find them on the store shelves and even when they are on sale if you are lucky. I was able to stock up on all the Zero Sugar sodas we drink with the July 4th sales so we should be good for a while (as long as we don’t lose AC or power when its 115 degrees). I my grab a couple of 12 packs this weekend just in case the new version fiddles with the formula too much.

  27. Kelly Sedinger – Buffalo, NY, USA – I write by night and work with hand and power tools by day...I have unhealthy obsessions with books, movies, music, food, and bib overalls. I live with my wonderful family (brilliant wife, brilliant kid, three lovable but dumb-as-post cats) near Buffalo, NY.
    Kelly C Sedinger

    I, for one, welcome our new Zero Sugar overlords! The success of Coke Zero was already a happy thing, but now that we’re diversifying into Sunkist Zero, Sprite Zero, and Dr. Pepper Zero, it seems that the trend is putting down roots. This makes me happy, because every one of these sodas that I have tasted thus far manages to get rid of that weird sucking-a-penny taste profile that afflicts all other “diet” sodas. (Oddly, that flavor never bothered me with Diet Pepsi.)

    My holy grail now is Vernors Zero. If that happens, I will truly be happy and never complain about anything again.*

    Except for [waves at world].

  28. Man, I’m still reeling from the replacement of Dr Pepper Ten (which, granted, had a repulsive marketing campaign, gendering something that doesn’t need it, but as a product was just as good tasting as the full-sugar version) with Dr Pepper Zero Sugar (which isn’t as good as Ten but still better than Diet Dr P).

    This is the bullshit you get when your leaders decide monopolies and oligopolies are the height of economic efficiency because they do away with all that wasteful redundancy of competition.

  29. I remember when Coke Zero came out; my husband came home with a can and I said “oh no, what will this do to Scalzi?”

    I can’t remember who went on the Zero bandwagon first, but I do remember they advertised it with a bunch of TV commercials with manly men doing manly things in a manly way, manly-ly. Because diets have girl cooties and obviously you can’t go mountain climbing or wrestling alligators or anything involving mud if you are a girl. Maybe that was Dr. Pepper 10?

    I was super-annoyed with Pepsi deciding to eliminate their Splenda-sweetened line. I’m one of those people who gets a blinding headache from aspartame (which is different from migraines or tension headaches; I know my headfeels), and it is literally impossible to find a no-calorie no-caffeine cola. And only occasionally can I find Diet Coke With Splenda, which has caffeine but doesn’t make my head asplode. Sucralose has the great advantage of lasting longer without tasting like ass pennies, unlike aspartame.

    So it’s fruit-flavored fizzy water or Mexican Coke in a bottle for me.

  30. A few years ago, Cook County instituted a sin tax on all sweetened ready-to-drink beverages. Fountain drinks at restaurants, packaged in the grocery stores. Sodas, Gatorade-types, canned/bottled coffees, Capri-sun type pouches, even any fruit drink that had any sweetener added to it. All of those artificial sweetener beverages also fell under the tax umbrella.

    I can’t tell you how many times I had customers freak the blank out over the fact that their 3/$10 sale Coke Zero still ended up costing $16 after all of the taxes were added on, and left all of the soda at the register in disgust. I also lived and worked close enough to the Lake County border that I fielded a lot of complaints from customers over why they had to pay an extra $5 at my store compared to the one a mile up the road and over the county line.

    The tax only lasted a few months, because people got relatively smart fast and drove up to Lake or out to DuPage, and the county coffers didn’t suddenly fill out the way the assessors expected. But the infamy remains.

  31. I’m still peeved they discontinued Tab.

    Diet Coke and Coke Zero really don’t taste all that different from each other to me.

  32. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 7/13/21 They Scrolled In Through The ‘Fresher Portal | File 770

  33. I’m grouchy about the whole thing.

    Artificial sweeteners are poison to me, and I have long preferred unsweetened or barely sweetened drinks (soda, iced tea, whatever). Most fast-food places with the regular soda dispensers run their “plain water” through the same spout as super-high-artificial-sweetener “lite” ersatz-lemonade products, which is A Problem (it doesn’t take much aspartame at all to set off a blinding headache, which is a really fun dessert after an on-the-road-in-the-middle-of-a-500km-drive drive-through snack).

    And, as Milo Bloom (I think, definitely Bloom County) noted all those years ago, “cola” = “malted battery acid”. So there.

  34. I am eternally suspicious about any alleged ‘changes’ to the flavour of carbonated cola drinks of any variety.
    They are more likely to be marketing ploys to gain exposure for the brand than any actually discernible change in taste that could be reliable detected in a blind test by drinkers of the beverage.
    And the evidence is that such ploys work, otherwise they would not be repeated so frequently, and written up so breathlessly by media.
    Spoken as one who rarely drinks cola of any variety, but can tell the difference between ‘naturally’ and ‘artificially’ sweetened varieties. The brands however, and only different because the containers are different. Otherwise the taste is for all practical purposes indentical.

  35. In a larger sense, I am struck with the recent ascendance of the “Zero Sugar” labeling in the sodasphere.

    There was a 13-year legal battle over whether Coca-Cola owned exclusive rights to the word ‘zero’ for soda or if it was a descriptive/generic term anyone could use.

    Coke lost about a year ago, leading to a wave of that labeling.

  36. Count me in as another UK consumer who basically didn’t notice the change at all. If they hadn’t created new packaging and advertised that it had a “New Taste” I wouldn’t have known at all. And even, with those changes, I wasn’t sure if it was really “New.” I mean how long can you say something is “New” after you’ve changed it? Years?

    In Europe certainly, it feels to me that Coke is positioning Coke Zero to be the default version of Coke. With sugar taxes in place meaning that classic Coke has to be priced more highly, and an overwhelming acceptance of the massive obesity problem, Coca-Cola has seen the writing on the wall, and in many stores (particularly major chains), Coke Zero is beginning to edge out classic Coke.

  37. I have no dog in this race. Back when I drank sodas I really just wanted Fresca. Does that even exist anymore? Then I switched to “hydration” which in my circle just meant generic Crystal Light. But I can’t find the flavors I liked anymore, so water it is.

  38. I really can’t taste much difference between regular coke and coke zero once I put bourbon in it anyway, so any change is unlikely to be noticed.
    Jokes aside, If the new formula tastes more like reg. coke, I’m all for it. I’ve recently switched my 44-year-old face to zero sugar soda. And as a Mt. Dew disciple, I really don’t like Mt. Dew zero. Even though I’m drinking one as I type this.

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