Irn-Bru, New Coke & the wild world of soft drinks

As Irn-Bru changes its recipe and sends the country into a frenzy, we dive into the sugary and complicated world of the fizzy drink

Feature by Peter Simpson | 02 Feb 2018
  • Irn Bru

There are some things in life that shouldn’t be messed with, the little bits and pieces that act as reassuring constants no matter what else is going on. For the longest time one of those constants has been everyone’s favourite tangerine-tinted sugar explosion Irn-Bru, the reliable friend of juiced-up children and hungover adults everywhere. But sadly, without wishing to flip your life upside down, we have some bad news.

In the coming weeks, the classic Irn-Bru that you know and love will be phased out in favour of a new imposter soda that is clearly the work of the devil, or at very least some kind of health-obsessed Satanic sidekick. There's been blanket press coverage of the switch, a petition ‘Hands off our IRN-BRU’ has just under 50,000 signatures at the time of writing, and there seems to be a general mild panic hanging over us at what’s to come, a panic which may not be entirely misguided if past events are anything to go by.

One of the interesting things about soft drinks is how different they are from, well, ‘normal’ food. If you go to a restaurant and order a curry, you can probably identify most of the ingredients by eye. For the ones you can’t see, taste and smell will give you an idea, and if you want to copy the recipe you are free to give it a bash. But the most popular soft drinks are tightly-guarded proprietary collections of mundane ingredients, blended into an oddly-coloured liquid then injected with thousands of pounds of marketing cash and/or the direct endorsement of Santa Claus.

Trying to work out what’s actually in a can of Coke from the label is like trying to get testimony out of a particularly unhelpful witness – ‘Natural Flavourings’ is the recipe equivalent of ‘up yours, we’re not telling’ – but there’s a ubiquity to its taste that’s made the fizzy brown sugar water a huge hit. So when Coca-Cola decided to change their near-century-old recipe back in 1985, they should have seen trouble coming.

You don’t spend almost 100 years getting people used to one specific formulation of a load of ingredients they have no access to, then mess with the ratios and expect them to go along with it. The ‘New Coke’ sparked a fan revolt that bears a strong resemblance to the current outpouring of Irn-Bru-based outrage – there was a vociferous letter-writing campaign (check), and Coke fans started stockpiling the original recipe (mm-hmm). We haven’t yet reached the stage of fans “swinging [their] umbrellas at a driver stocking cases of the New Coke, yelling that it ‘tastes like shit,’” but give it time.

Of course, given the extreme profitability of the sugary fizz business there have been a host of goof-ups by the industry over the years. There was Orbitz, the soft drink with weird gelatin balls floating in it. There was Pepsi Raw, a drink which tried to make itself out as healthy and natural, despite the fact it was a bottle of mysterious brown liquid with seven teaspoons of sugar in it. Then there was the time Coca-Cola were so concerned about Crystal Pepsi becoming a success that their marketing team decided to send their own clear soda, Tab Clear, on a “kamikaze” mission to make Crystal Pepsi look as uncool as possible. The point is that while the world of soft drinks is full of the kind of food science experiments that would make Dr Frankenstein blush, it’s an area in which drinkers are fiercely loyal and are personally offended by the idea of change.

At this stage, we have to talk about what's behind that loyalty – the white stuff. No, not cocaine; sugar. Eating excessive amounts of it is generally considered not to be good for you, and the classic Irn-Bru recipe features more than ten grams of sugar per 100ml. In other words, the reason that a can of Irn-Bru helps with your hangover is because it has eight-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar in it; you'd be struggling to get as much sugar into your system that quickly if you dived headfirst into the bag.

For years, doctors and health campaigners have been looking at the best way to get us all to cut down on our sugar consumption, and the finger has often ended up pointed at soft drinks. Hence the new 'sugar tax' that comes into effect in April, which will lead to producers of sugary drinks paying an 18p tax per litre on drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, and 24p a litre on those that come in at over 8g per 100ml. That is unless they, say, modify the recipe to bring it under the threshold, helping protect the nation's health while saving themselves some hefty scratch at the same time.

That's why the recipe for one of the country's best-loved drinks is changing – it's so sugary that it's too expensive to produce, and if that's not a red flag to maybe cut down on drinking the stuff, we don't know what is. The new Irn-Bru will feature half as much sugar as the original, with artificial sweeteners making up the numbers. While many of the claims made against aspartame and the like don't stand up to much scientific rigour, it is this writer's considered opinion that artificial sweeteners taste terrible. Drinks with artificial sweeteners tend to feature an immediate and abrasive sweetness combined with a faintly metallic taste reminiscent of trying to eat a Kit-Kat without taking the foil off first. And that's not a scientific fact, that's just one man's opinion.

Coca-Cola, for their part, are cutting the sizes of their bottles and jacking up their prices rather than messing with their recipe, 'once bitten twice shy' apparently applying especially strongly when you bit yourself the first time round. Irn-Bru producers AG Barr are confident of their new recipe, telling the Guardian that "nine out of ten regular Irn-Bru drinkers could not taste the difference."

Maybe they're right, or maybe their market research has sent them down a blind alley and we'll be back to the sugary beginning by the end of the year, but one thing is undoubtedly clear: many people in Scotland love Irn-Bru, and they don't really want it to change regardless of how bad it might be for them.  When a drink becomes a ubiquitous part of the culture, it's the drinkers who really control its destiny. As for whether we'll see those drinkers waving their umbrellas at Irn Bru lorries this summer, we'll just have to wait and see.