The real difference between Coke and Pepsi

The world of food and beverage is full of long-running debates fueled by differences in preferences. Some think pineapple is a great pizza topping, while others say the fruit has no place on their slices. There are those who dip their fries in ketchup on the side and those who douse all of them with the condiment before digging in. Certain people prefer sparkling to still, while others like their water without carbonation.

And when it comes to Coca-Cola or Pepsi, you're sure to find someone who's vocal about which one he or she prefers to drink. Between the two beverages, there's rarely any middle ground. People are either Team Coke or Team Pepsi. Fans have long claimed that they can distinguish between the two drinks with just a sip — even without looking. But is there actually any difference in how the two brands taste?

Malcolm Gladwell researched the flavor differences between Coke and Pepsi and what these have to do with people's taste preferences. The acclaimed journalist and author managed to pinpoint the specific factor that influences which of the two beverages someone likes more (via Open Wide Eats).

One ingredient you'll find in Pepsi and not in Coke

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, published in 2005, Gladwell wrote that Pepsi is a sweeter beverage than Coke and had that initial advantage during taste tests. He also explained that Pepsi has a bit of a citrus flavor, which is quite different from Coke's vanilla-raisin flavor notes. However, he also noted that the citrus burst of flavor doesn't stick around over an entire serving of Pepsi, so it tends to excel in taste tests. 

How does that claim hold up with the ingredient lists for the two drinks?

The ingredients for Coke are carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, caffeine, and natural flavors. Pepsi's makeup is similar but there are clear differences if you look closely. The ingredients for Pepsi are carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, caffeine, citric acid, and natural flavor (via TipHero). The key difference? Pepsi contains citric acid (Coke does not), which creates that "citrusy flavor burst" Gladwell mentioned.

Why Coke tastes less sweet than Pepsi

Gladwell's assertion that Pepsi is sweeter than Coke parallels the nutritional info from both brands too. A 12 ounce can of Coke has 39g added sugars and 45mg sodium (via Coca-Cola). A Pepsi in the same size can contains 41g added sugars and 30mg sodium (via Pepsi). Since Pepsi has two more grams of sugar and Coke has 15 more milligrams of sodium, that's why the former makes for a sweeter sip while the latter is a bit more toned-down in terms of sweetness (via Reader's Digest).

It can also be assumed that Coke's "natural flavors" and Pepsi's "natural flavor" lend differences in the flavor profiles for the two drinks, but those are trade secrets that are not publicly known. Otherwise, we would know exactly what makes these sodas taste different.

But even without the exact recipes, it's clear that if you prefer Pepsi, then you probably like a drink that is sweeter with some tartness. On the other hand, if you enjoy Coke more, then you're probably a fan of its raisin-vanilla-like flavor that goes down a bit smoother and is a little less sweet.