Coca-Cola is my favorite soft drink. I’ve always been a fan of the taste, and while I don’t drink it often, it’s fabulous to have on special occasions. I like it best out of the fountain, but I’ll take bottles and cans, too.
I also don’t mind taking other colas as a substitute. Pepsi is fine, and local craft colas — especially those made with sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup — are a lot of fun. I’ll even sometimes go for a generic cola, although in my experience they don’t quite meet the lofty standards of the big names. (Generic takes on a lemon-lime soda or root beer seem to do better.)
Despite my generally forgettable experiences with grocery store colas, I still try them from time to time. You never know, after all, when you might find a gem.
Recently I was in Dollar Tree and I saw something that made me stop. It was a Dollar Tree cola bottle. A big one. Now, in my mind a big bottle of $1 screams trouble, especially when it comes from a dollar store.
All the more reason why I had to try it.
Stars and Stripes Cola comes in a 2.75 liter bottle, which is 0.75 liters larger than your typical large plastic soda bottle. That’s 93 ounces. At $1 a bottle, that comes out to about 1.07 cents per ounce. For comparison, Aldi currently runs about 1.1 cents an ounce and Walmart is closer to 1.3 cents an ounce. That makes Dollar Tree a marginally better deal.
The bottle doesn’t indicate who manufactures the cola. It does note that Refresco Beverages, a beverage distribution company, distributes it.
I gave it to my family to try. The universal consensus was decent but not great. In other words, to them it tasted like other store-bought cola. No name brand, but not terrible, either.
And then I looked more closely at the ingredients. I was a little suspicious, because the calories seemed lower for an 8-ounce serving than I would have thought.
Toward the bottom of the ingredients list, it shows aspartame. Aspartame, as some people know, is an artificial sweetener, better known by brand names like NutraSweet and Equal. While aspartame is controversial in some quarters for different reasons, the biggest con for the average soda drinker is the aftertaste. I have to admit that I didn’t notice it at first — and I hate diet sodas — but after noting the ingredients and going back to try it again I could taste it.
I can’t ever recall getting a regular cola with aspartame in it, and it set me thinking as to why. Is aspartame cheaper than high fructose corn syrup, thus making it cheaper for Dollar Tree? I know that a diet cola contains about 185 milligrams of aspartame, which is a lot less than the 26-27 grams of high fructose corn syrup or sugar you get in a regular cola. I couldn’t tell you, though, what the comparative prices are for those components. Or is it an attempt to cut down on the calories and sugar content to make it more marketable? This cola has about 4 grams less sugar per 8-ounce serving than your average Coca-Cola, so there’s that.
My best guess is that it is somehow cheaper, because most cola drinkers don’t care about calories or sugar content, and those that do just go the diet or zero route. The idea of making a “cola lite” or “half-cola” strikes me as incredibly odd, especially when the bottle makes no attempt to advertise this fact, not even as a comparative advantage. It just pretends to be a regular cola, when in fact it isn’t.
Beyond that, the cola does contain caffeine, and also a small amount of sodium.
At first blush, Stars and Stripes Cola seems like a pretty decent, if forgettable cola. For reasons unclear, however, it contains aspartame in addition to sugar. Admittedly, none of us noticed the aftertaste when we first tried it, but after realizing what was in the ingredients, I went back and was able to taste it. It helps to cut down on the calorie and sugar count, but at a cost.
I couldn’t tell you how many people would notice the aspartame if I served this to a large crowd. But I don’t think I’d be willing to take the risk. If I’m serving cola for a big gathering, I’m not going with this big bottle. It’s unfortunate.