Cracking the Code
To create the see-through spinoff, Novak teamed up with food scientist Surinder Kumar, the junk food wizard behind the flavor of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Novak explained the idea and stressed the importance of clear bottles to show off the drink’s hip new look, according to Kumar.
Kumar, who was then head of Pepsi’s Research and Development branch, balked at first. He foresaw a huge problem. “I knew it had a strong possibility of going bad in clear bottles,” he said. “Colas are brown for a good reason.”
The color keeps sunlight from spoiling the drink, and morphing it into a brew that “smells and tastes like shoe polish,” he says. Ever wonder why 7-Up and Sprite are sold in green bottles? It’s the exact same concept, he stressed to Pepsi executives.
“But Pepsi’s motto at the time was ‘Go Big.’ And so I was told, ‘You’re a food scientist -- figure it out,’” Kumar says. “From a technical standpoint, I thought it was impossible. There are laws of physics and chemistry you can’t change.”
But he set out to try. The goal was to make a caffeine-and-preservative-free clear soda that tastes like original Pepsi but wouldn’t eat into its sales. Over the next few months, he concocted a recipe that included a mix of sugars and salts -- along with a secret substitute for the caramel-brown color and flavor, which he’s still not at liberty to disclose.
Problem was, honchos wouldn’t tell him the full recipe of regular Pepsi, he says. Only a few execs at the firm knew the coveted trade secret, which made it harder to replicate. To Kumar, it felt like guarding a castle in a blindfold.
“Imagine trying to protect the flavor of something without actually knowing what’s in it,” he says. “It was difficult and very frustrating.” (Pepsi didn’t return requests for comment.)
Kumar also wasn’t hot on the idea of marketing Crystal Pepsi as healthy. It was made with high fructose corn syrup and had roughly the same amount of calories. “It was misleading to consumers. My point of view was if we want to market it as ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ then the ingredients need to reflect that,” he says.
Focus groups didn’t seem to mind. “They loved it,” according to Novak. “So I rushed it into the test market.”