By Denis Faye

Sure, soda pop is the biggest calorie source in the American diet. Sure, it may be a sugary-sweet drink that is partially responsible for the planet's obesity epidemic, according to a 2007 Yale University study. But frankly, there's not much real about cola. Heck, most American versions don't even have real sugar in it.

To prove this point, we've decided to take a look at the ingredients in a can of cola. Is there anything real in there? You tell us.

Carbonated water

Ingredient-wise, this is cola's get-out-of-jail-free card. Carbonated water—water injected with carbon dioxide gas—has received a bad rap over the years, but current studies suggest there's little wrong with it. The idea that the phosphorus (the "fizz") in bubbly water drains calcium from bones was shown to be untrue in a 2001 study by the Creighton University Osteoporosis Research Center in Nebraska. So if you give up the soda and stick to the soda water, you'll be in good shape.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

For the uninitiated, HFCS is corn syrup that has gone through enzymatic processing to increase its fructose level. It's then mixed with un-enzymatic processed corn syrup to make a combo of fructose and glucose that can be used as a sweetener. Due to the massive amount of corn our country produces, HFCS is cheaper than white cane sugar and, therefore, the sweetener of choice for just about every American junk food you can think of.

There have been all kinds of theories and studies over the years claiming that HFCS is worse for you than other sugars. Conversely, the Corn Refiners Association has gone to great lengths to dispute this information, but it's a losing battle. They have yet to comment on the latest studies, one published in Environmental Health and another from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, both showing that HFCS can contain mercury.

Whomever you believe, this stuff just isn't good for you. One 12-ounce can (and who drinks just a can anymore?) contains 39 grams of simple carbohydrates, all from HFCS. With no fat, no protein, and no fiber, it's 140 calories of blood-sugar-spiking sweetness. It's like eating 9 teaspoons of table sugar. So no matter what you call it, what vegetable it's derived from, or how you process it, it's bad for you.

Caramel color

Also known as caramel coloring, this is just sugar heated until it turns brown. However, the heating process to make class IV sulfite ammonia caramel coloring, the kind they put in soft drinks, requires ammonia. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this doesn't affect the toxicological properties. A joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization expert committee on food additives wasn't quite as sure and suggested a 0 to 200 milligram per kilogram of body weight limit on the stuff. Most colas don't appear to publish the amount of caramel color they use, so we have no idea how much you'll find in a Big Gulp.

Either way, in the U.S., guess what kind of sugar this stuff is made of? Yes, corn syrup (see: High Fructose Corn Syrup [HFCS]).

Phosphoric acid

Phosphoric acid is a chemical that gives colas their "tangy taste." It's much cheaper to use than more natural ingredients. The belief that phosphoric acid lowers bone density is contentious. While it's true that a 2006 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who consume cola daily have lower bone density, that could also be because those soda drinkers were less inclined to drink calcium-rich beverages such as milk. Furthermore, the Creighton University study (see: Carbonated water) suggests that it wasn't the phosphoric acid causing the problem—rather, it was the caffeine.

Regardless, phosphoric acid makes an excellent rust remover for iron and steel. So think about that the next time you have a hankering for a cola.

Natural flavors

Most people believe the word "natural" means that these flavors are the good stuff. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eric Schlosser, in his amazing book Fast Food Nation, sums it up best. Basically, just because a flavor is "natural" doesn't mean it's healthier than an "artificial" flavor. In fact, sometimes the opposite can be true. The example Schlosser brings up is almond flavoring. "When almond flavor is derived from natural sources," he writes, "such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison."

Conversely, artificial almond flavor "derived through a different process (by mixing oil of clove and the banana flavor, amyl acetate) does not contain any cyanide."

Most colas' secret recipes are safely hidden in their natural ingredients. Given that it's one of the best-kept secrets in industrial history, props to you if you can figure out what you're drinking.


Considering that some of our supplements contain caffeine, it would be downright hypocritical to trash it here. The simple fact is that in small amounts caffeine is fine. In fact, it's an ergogenic aid, meaning that it can increase the capacity for mental or physical labor. However, if you get too carried away, it can lead to everything from peptic ulcers to sleep disorders to the above-mentioned bone density loss.

So if you're at risk for osteoporosis, you're probably going to want to pass on caffeine. Otherwise, you'll want to drink it in moderation.

How does this bode badly for soda? Simple. Pretty much every other source of caffeine around has some kind of benefit. Supplements have myriad benefits. Coffee and tea contain antioxidants. Even chocolate, in moderation, is said to be beneficial, with its antioxidants, flavonoids, and phenylethylamine—a mild mood enhancer. Why get it drinking soda, a beverage without a single other beneficial quality yet several detrimental ones?

So there you have it. Mix that all together, and you get cola. Heck, because it's so natural and "real," you should be able to make it at home with ingredients sitting in your kitchen pantry. Right? Right?

Who am I kidding? This stuff's junk. Real junk, but junk nonetheless.