On April 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois dismissed the case of Kremers v. Coca-Cola Company. The case involved another of these ubiquitous claims where someone is suing saying they were fooled by labeling on a product. Unfortunately, the case was dismissed on grounds that indicate we might never really know the answer to the real gravamen to the plaintiffs’ complaint.

The claim involved the change, famous in product lore, from Coke to “new Coke” and then back to “Coca-Cola classic.” In 1985, Coca-Cola Company announced it was reformulating its flagship brand, renaming it “New Coke.” Two months later, having learned that brand loyalty may indeed trump blind taste tests, it relaunched its old formula as “Coca-Cola classic.” Eventually, New Coke was renamed “Coke II” and is, according to Coca-Cola Company itself, no longer available in the United States. 

 

The Kremers case involved what, at least on the can of Coke® I borrowed from my office, is a tiny legend at the bottom of the can, saying “Original Formula.” The claim was that the original formula” of Coca-Cola included sugar, not high fructose corn syrup, and therefore the phrase “Original Formula” was misleading, requiring, of course, the company to cough up damages to everyone who had been fooled by the phrase. 

 

Unfortunately for the two named plaintiffs, fortunately for Coca-Cola Company and definitely unfortunately for anyone who wanted to find out the answer to the question of whether “Original Formula” could in fact be misleading, the two plaintiffs had different, but equally dispositive, flaws in their cases. Lead plaintiff Amanda Kremers couldn’t beat the five year Illinois statute of limitations for claims of unjust enrichment. She admitted in her deposition that she had first heard that high fructose corn syrup was in Coke® way back in the 1990s. Second named plaintiff Jason McCann admitted on deposition that he’d never read the words “Original Formula” on the can, which made it basically impossible for him to claim he was deceived. And both plaintiffs admitted to continuing to buy Coke® even after the case was brought, when they clearly could not have been deceived about the contents of the beverage, since they were already suing its manufacturer. 

The unanswered question in the case is interesting. As you can see, the type size for “Original Formula” is about the same as the type size for “High Fructose Corn Syrup” on the ingredients label. That would probably argue against anyone being reasonably misled by the one by somehow failing to look at the other. 

 

More to the point, however, is that the history of Coca-Cola does not support the plaintiff’s case. The “formula” of Coca-Cola is proprietary and a trade secret (though how much of a secret is of course the subject of debate). Coca-Cola used to include real live cocaine, as opposed to completely decocainized coca leaves. According to Snopes, at some point in the 1920’s

 

glycerin was added as a preservative, cocaine was eliminated, caffeine was greatly reduced, and citric acid was replaced by phosphoric acid, to name the changes we know about.

By “Original Formula,” they quite clearly mean “not that New Coke stuff everyone complained about in 1985.” Coca-Cola Company itself admits they misunderstood their own customers then; they’re just reassuring them now.

 

Also according to Snopes, when New Coke was introduced in 1985, there was no sugar in Coke®. So focusing on the high fructose corn syrup, as opposed to the other changes, seems likely to be an attack on HFCS more than anything to do with being fooled by which Coca-Cola formula is in the can. 

 

Of course, if you want Coke® with real sugar, it’s available from Mexico (Sugared Coke® is also available in the United States in some areas around Passover, because observant Ashkenazic Jews don’t eat corn during the holiday).

 

I haven’t drunk Coke® in years, but this past winter we were visiting some Mayan ruins and on the way back had lunch in Bacalar, where we had a choice of beer, bottled water and Coke®. I chose the Coke® and after one sip I realized that this was the beverage I had grown up with. Yes, sugar in Coke® does, at least to these taste buds, make a difference. But I can also read a label.