A couple of disclaimers first and foremost. There is no particular reason why I am writing specifically about Coke Zero, so this could apply to any artificially sweetened soft drink. I am also not a nutritionist, so please do not mistake my economic ramblings for actual health advice.
I sometimes feel a slight twang of humiliation when a fast food cashier asks me which drink I’d like with my mega-deluxe jumbo meal. “Coke Zero”, I’ll mumble, and an unmistakable flash of disgust appears on their face. Similar with friends too. I’ll order Coke Zero, and someone will tell me that it tastes gross, or that “it has more sugar/calories than normal Coke” (this one I’ll never understand), or that it’ll give me cancer, or diabetes, or some other unpleasant ailment.
Here is my defence of Coke Zero, the consummate beverage gifted to us by the gods of food science.
I will admit that in a contest of taste, regular Coke wins hands down. To what degree is up to you as an individual to decide. There is simply no denying it, Coke made with sugar is delicious and tastes better than Coke Zero, and if I really had to put a number on it, I might say that Coke Zero has 60% of the taste and enjoyment of regular Coke.
So then why do I drink it? As an economist, I always strive to create the most efficient and optimal solutions for as many things as possible in my everyday life.
Going back to regular Coke, one can contains 39.8g of sugar. A 600mL bottle contains 63.6g of sugar. Respectively, these equate to 675kJ and 1080kJ of dietary energy provided by just the sugar inside the drink. Common sense also dictates that calories that are not consumed get converted to long-term energy storage inside the body; that is, fat.
With my decision making behaviour preferences, I consider the presence of fat to resemble that of an economic “bad”, here referring to a good or a service that imparts negative value to myself as a consumer. Subsequently, the only way I would be able to prevent fat gain after drinking regular Coke is to reduce my intake of complements, referring to pretty much any other type of food (this is not an option), or to expend the energy through exercise. A rough estimate indicates that to fully expend the energy consumed in a bottle of regular Coke, around 50-60 minutes of constant running is required to bring the net energy consumed down to zero. For me, running is also a very undesirable “bad”, and must be avoided at all costs.
My complaint with Coke is not that I don’t enjoy the taste (very much the opposite in fact), but rather the costs imposed on my poor body as a result of consuming the drink. With this in mind, we turn to our knight in shining armor: Coke Zero.
Coke Zero is artificially sweetened, and as such, does not carry the same energy content of regular Coke. A 600mL bottle of Coke Zero contains 8.4kJ. As a handy comparison, simply existing as a person that is alive for approximately a minute and a half will cause your body to consume the equivalent of that Coke Zero.
Bringing it all back together in economic terms, regular Coke provides me with a relatively high amount of utility (enjoyment), but the non-monetary cost of consuming the drink is quite high as it requires me to run around in circles for an hour. Coke Zero has a lesser amount of utility, because it just doesn’t taste as nice. However, the non-monetary cost of consuming Coke Zero is close to zero (wordplay!). Consequently, the net utility I gain from drinking Coke Zero is going to be higher than the net utility I gain from drinking regular Coke.
To my helpful friends who have told me that Coke Zero will give me some combination of cancer, or diabetes, or kidney failure – I don’t really care. Though straying a little from economics, food safety agencies around the world accept that these sweeteners can be considered safe. If I were to accept that drinking artificially sweetened beverages posed some risk to my health (which I don’t), the probability of an adverse event happening is so low it is likely a rounding error, and is something for future me to worry about if it gets to that point. For now, I need to figure out how to express this 800-word rant to the next poor teenager taking my Maccas order.
Image: Kevin Chan