How Soda Affects Meat

The high acidity of soda beverages like colas makes them a great marinade for meat. In fact, the Coke and meat experiment shows the effect that soda has on tenderizing beef, chicken and fish. Sodas also provide a great flavor to meat, but the added sugar is an issue to consider.

Soda can be used in marinades for steak and chicken.
Credit: Eryn Thornton / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

Tip

According to the USDA, one 12-ounce can of cola has 156 calories. If you're watching your calories, this beverage may not be your best choice for tenderizing meat.

Cooking Meat With Soda

There are many interesting recipes for meat marinades using ingredients like coffee, yogurt and yes, even soda. As it turns out, beverages like colas do a great job of adding flavor, as well as tenderizing meats.

How does it work? It has to do with the acidity of the soda. According to the American Meat Science Association, meats can be made more flavorful and tender by using acidic marinades.

The marinade will only penetrate about a quarter of an inch into the meat, adding more flavor than actual tenderness. The most commonly used acids for marinating meat are lemon juice, wine and vinegar, but soda works too.

Similar to lemon juice, soda drinks like colas are quite acidic because of phosphoric acid and citric acid. Sodas also contain carbon dioxide, which contributes to their effervescent qualities and acidity.

A pH of 7 is neutral, whereas a pH of less than 7 is acidic. According to the American Dental Association, the pH of Coca-Cola is 2.37, while the pH of lemon juice is 2.25 and vinegar is 2.4. This means that the acid level of soda beverages is equivalent to that of other liquids used to marinate and tenderize meat.

These drinks also add a sweet, rich caramel taste to many types of meat. You can even use soda to make a braising liquid in place of wine. How long you marinate the meat is up to you.

The Coke and Meat Experiment

The Coke and meat experiment is a popular science fair project that studies whether soda can dissolve meat. Coca-Cola is very acidic, and a June 2015 study in PLOS One showed that it does erode tooth enamel, but is it capable of actually dissolving meat?

In this experiment, pieces of chicken, beef and fish are soaked in Coke for a week. According to UCSB ScienceLine, stomach pH is usually around 2. Therefore, with Coke's pH of 2.37, it should be able to dissolve meat as well.

The experiment shows that even though it does tenderize the meat, Coke will not completely dissolve the meat after soaking for one week. The reason is that the stomach also produces hydrochloric acid, which assists in digestion — not to mention that chewing the meat helps break it down before it even lands in the stomach.

Read more: Is Drinking Diet Soda Bad for You?

Acidity Levels of Different Sodas

Different sodas have slightly different acidity levels and flavors that can affect the taste and tenderness of meat. For example, colas will give the meat a caramel flavor, while a cream soda will give it a taste of vanilla. Clear lemon-flavored sodas have a citrus taste that would complement chicken.

See below for the pH levels of popular sodas, according to the American Dental Association -- the lower the pH, the stronger the acid:

  • Coca-Cola Zero: 2.96
  • Pepsi: 2.39
  • Coca-Cola Cherry: 2.38
  • Sprite: 3.24
  • 7 Up: 3.24
  • Natural Brew Draft Root Beer: 2.90
  • Crush Orange: 2.87
  • Jones Cream Soda: 3.04
  • RC Cola: 2.32
  • Fanta Pineapple: 2.79

Read more: Health: Coca-Cola Vs. Coke Zero

Even though soda does add flavor and can tenderize meat, it's not the healthiest option as it contains sugar, artificial flavors and preservatives. A September 2019 JAMA study has linked soft drinks to higher mortality rates and a greater risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The amount of soda used in meat recipes is small, though, so it's unlikely to affect your health. However, there are better choices available.

Your better bet is to flavor meats with unprocessed marinades, such as lemon juice, vinegar or wine. Marinating meat is a good choice when grilling as it helps reduce charring, which produces cancer-causing agents, points out the Mayo Clinic Health System. Our recipe for Fresh Mango Marinade is a delicious and healthy option, so consider trying it out.

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