The Passover Coca-Cola Challenge [VIDEO]

That Passover Coke tastes better than the year-round version is so often heard in Jewish circles that the Journal decided to hold a “Passover Coca-Cola Taste Test” on March 18. 

We set up a table on a Pico Boulevard sidewalk during the height of last-minute shopping for Shabbat and asked passersby to taste two identical-looking, unlabeled cups of Coke. One was the regular version, and one was the Passover variety. (Passover Coke is still available locally in some stores that acquire it from other states.) They were then asked to identify which one they preferred. 

The sample size — 12 brave volunteers — might make a statistician scoff, but the results were clear: 75 percent of the participants preferred kosher for Passover Coke with its cane sugar replacing the normal version’s high-fructose corn syrup.

[Related: The story of Passover Coca-Cola]

Jonathan Hassid, a 13-year-old student at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, had a small cup of the Passover Coke, placed it down and allowed the flavors to settle. Then he tried the regular version. 

After thinking for a few seconds, he pointed to the side of the table with the Passover cola. Hassid wasn’t surprised that he preferred the Passover Coke because, as he put it, “Usually my friends tell me it’s better.” 

Others followed suit.

“I like that better,” said participant Ilana Maghen, pointing to the right side of the table, the one with the cups of Passover Coke. “It’s sweeter.”

Joshua Corber tried both samples and then pointed to the empty cup with the Passover soda, asking, “Is that the sugar one?” He sounded like a Dos Equis commercial when he said that although he “doesn’t drink much soda at all,” when he does, “it’s sugar.” 

Then there was Oren Rehany, who was rushing to buy some items for Shabbat. He was the experiment’s sole person to choose neither option. His response after quickly drinking both cups?

“They are both hideous.”

The story of Passover Coca-Cola

It contains pure cane sugar, is chametz-free, may taste better than the year-round beverage — and is effectively off-limits in the state of California.

While the story of kosher for Passover Coca-Cola may not be as riveting as God unleashing swarms of locust on the Egyptians or splitting the Red Sea, it’s one that, particularly for Jews in California, could rival at least some of the slower portions of the Passover haggadah.

Why on these eight days does the soda taste different than on all other days? Cane sugar.

In its year-round formula, Coca-Cola uses high-fructose corn syrup for sweetness. But for Ashkenazim — Jews of Eastern European descent — corn and corn-based products are forbidden during Passover. To satisfy the sweet tooth of Jews who strictly observe Passover, Coca-Cola substituted cane sugar for corn syrup.

For many, a yellow-capped Coke on Passover — instead of the traditional red — is as strong a tradition as matzah pizza and macaroons. It is perhaps the soda most associated by Jews with the holiday. But one major problem stands in the way of tradition these days — California state law. 

[Related: The Passover Coca-Cola Challenge]

The Passover version of the popular soft drink has been, since 2011, effectively outlawed in the Golden State, but shoppers can still find it in some stores that acquire it from other states. 

The culprit? A chemical whose name sounds like something out of a 1980s science fiction thriller: 4-Methylimidazole, or 4-MEI.

An ingredient in regular Coca-Cola, 4-MEI is a chemical byproduct naturally formed during the heating and browning process in some foods, like caramel. A change in state law required some sort of warning or, for Coke, a change in its normal formula, something that had unintended negative consequences in its ability to create a Passover version.

The problem is that 4-MEI is “known to the state to cause cancer,” according to the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s (OEHHA) Web site. If 100,000 people consume at least 29 micrograms of 4-MEI per day for 70 years, one of them will get cancer from the exposure, OEHHA spokesperson Colleen Flannery wrote in an e-mail. That 1 in 100,000 chance exceeds the state’s “safe harbor limit,” making it one of nearly 800 chemicals singled out by the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 — also known as Proposition 65. 

If you’ve ever peered around a gas station while filling up or let your eyes wander while waiting in line at a Starbucks, you may have noticed a sign or label with a “Proposition 65 WARNING.” When a chemical appears on the Prop. 65 list, the law states that businesses that sell products containing more than a certain amount must provide a clear and visible warning to the consumer or risk penalties that reach up to $2,500 per violation per day.

Just this month, a California citizen filed lawsuits against several companies “for failure to warn about exposures to 4-MEI contained in imitation maple flavor and caramel coloring,” according to Lynda Gledhill, press secretary for California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Gledhill wrote in an e-mail that soft drink companies have yet to face any Prop. 65 lawsuits.

How much of a real threat the chemical poses has been disputed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagreed with California’s classification of 4-MEI as a carcinogen. FDA spokesman Douglas Karas wrote in a statement last year that to consume the amount of 4-MEI that was linked to cancer in mice, one would “have to consume well over a thousand cans of soda a day.”

Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Washington, D.C., Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), however, called the FDA’s statement “malarkey.”

“The more you consume, the greater the risk,” he told the Journal.

CSPI, since its formation in 1971, has advocated for stronger government policies and has pressured the FDA to take stricter positions on caramel coloring. Jacobson was happy to see 4-MEI added to the Prop. 65 list in California because it prompted Coke to use a caramel with lower doses of 4-MEI.

When 4-MEI was added to Prop. 65’s list in January 2011, the company had one year to comply with the law. So, in 2012, it tweaked parts of its closely held formula, modifying its caramel by, in part, reducing the levels of 4-MEI. 

But the change didn’t come without a price. It appears to have made the drink unacceptable for Passover in another way, and more alterations were necessary to make the drink seder-worthy.

Last April, the Pasadena Star-News reported that Coca-Cola spokesman Bob Phillips anticipated Passover Coke being available in 2013. But when the Journal contacted Coca-Cola several weeks ago, spokeswoman Michele McKillip wrote in an e-mail that the company is still testing its new Passover formula for “shelf life.”

“Ingredients may be sourced differently or manufacturing processes may be different for kosher for Passover products,” McKillip wrote. “The new process caramel has not been used before in kosher for Passover products.”

In theory, Coca-Cola could revert to its old Passover formula, but it would then have to make sure that consumers were warned before every purchase, perhaps even with a warning label on every bottle. Coca-Cola, McKillip wrote, hopes to be able to provide a Passover version in 2014.

Kosher for Passover Coke barred from California

Kosher for Passover Coca-Cola has been barred from California.

California’s new state laws on toxic chemicals are keeping kosher for Passover Coke out of the state, a company spokesman told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Coke was required to change the way it manufactures caramel due to the high levels of the chemical 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MEI, which California has listed as a carcinogen under its new guidelines. The manufacturing changes in California affected the kosher for Passover status of the cola, according to reports.

The company expects to offer the kosher for Passover variety of Coke in California by 2013, the newspaper reported, citing the company spokesman.

The Passover version of Coke uses sugar in place of corn syrup, which is not kosher for Passover for Ashkenazi Jews.

Some kosher stores in California carried limited amounts of kosher for Passover Coke, which bears a yellow cap, that was imported from other states.

Return of the Real Thing

It’s that time of year, when Coca-Cola substitutes sugar for high-fructose corn syrup to guarantee that “Coke is it” at Ashkenazi seders. This special batch is deliverance from the bitter anguish of Aspartame-sweetened soft drinks at the Passover table and a trip into the past for Coke fans born before the 1980s.

Coke switched from sugar to the more cost-effective corn syrup during the 1985 New Coke debacle and kept the new sweetener when they reintroduced the tried-and-true recipe of Coca-Cola Classic. But Coca-Cola splurges for Jews who abstain from products that leaven, like corn, during Pesach, and whips up a incredibly tastier old-school batch with sugar that typically hits stores mid-March.

Kosher-for-Passover Coke cans are marked this year with “P01CRC” in a black triangle near the bar code, while the 2-liter bottles have a yellow cap with a tiny Orthodox Union mark on the top and an “OU-P” printed on the seal ring. (Bottles with yellow caps featuring a Nascar contest are not kosher for Passover.)

Ironically, Coke is still made with sugar outside of the United States, and the American kosher version uses the international labeling that cites “corn syrup and/or sucrose” in the ingredients; but rest assured that only sugar has been used.

To highlight the flavor difference, a blind taste-test challenge was recently conducted at The Jewish Journal’s offices. Kosher-for-Passover Coke was pitted against its corn syrup-laden sibling.

Out of 10 Jewish Journal staffers, seven preferred the taste of kosher Coke. One staffer remarked that she could taste a spicy, cinnamon flavor in the kosher version; another said the taste difference was “dramatic.” The three who picked Coke with corn syrup did so because it was either “richer,” “sharper” or “familiar.”

Locally, kosher-for-Passover Coke can be found at kosher markets, like Kosher Club and Kotlar’s Pico Market, and some major supermarkets.