By John Schmeltzer
It’s not unusual for Dee McKinsey to have three cans of Coke before she leaves the house each morning for her job as the regional director of boards and volunteerism at the American Cancer Society in Chicago.
“There is nothing better than the feel of Coke on the back of your throat in the morning,” said McKinsey, a morning pop drinker since the 1970s, savoring the cold, stinging sensation that coffee drinkers just don’t get.
But these days, more people are enjoying that chilled morning jolt as they increasingly turn to soft drinks instead of coffee, flaunting mom’s no-pop-for-breakfast rule many had in their youth.
Consumption of soft drinks at breakfast eaten outside the home has nearly doubled in the past 15 years, while coffee consumption with breakfast outside the home has fallen nearly 25 percent, according to data compiled by New-York based consumer research firm NPD Group, which has offices in Rosemont.
The data is specific to drinks with meals and does not, for example, address the Starbucks phenomenon.
Breakfast consumers order a soft drink with their breakfast 15.1 percent of the time, compared with 7.9 percent of the time in 1990, said Harry Balzer, an NPD executive vice president who has studied American eating habits for more than 25 years. At the same time, Balzer said, coffee was being ordered 38 percent of the time, compared with 48.7 percent 15 years ago.
It probably is not surprising that soft drinks are a growing choice at breakfast considering that nearly half of the U.S. population older than age 4 consumes soft drinks on any given day, according a study commissioned by a milk group.
And consumers are drinking soda for breakfast at home more frequently, too, though not in the same numbers.
Balzer said 2.4 percent of the people who ate breakfast at home in 2006 consumed a soft drink with breakfast, compared with 0.5 percent in 1985.
Most morning consumers prefer fully sugared regular pop, but diet soda consumption continues to grow in the mornings. In 2006, 5.3 percent of those eating breakfast away from home had a diet pop, while 9.8 percent had a regular soda. Diet pop accompanied 1.7 percent of breakfasts in 1990, according to NPD.
Megan Hebenstreit, 24, a law student at Indiana University in Indianapolis, drinks Diet Coke early in the day because she can, now that she’s gone away to school.
“My mom did not allow Coke in the morning when we were growing up,” she said. “They had it in the dining hall, and it was easy to get.”
Hebenstreit said she gets headaches if she doesn’t drink a Diet Coke.
A typical soft drink contains about 35 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce serving, while a similar size cup of coffee has an average of 75 milligrams. But the caffeine content of a cup of coffee can be more than 100 milligrams depending upon the type of coffee and the manner in which it is brewed.
Stephen Shapiro, a former Accenture consultant who is now a motivational speaker and owner of the consulting company 24/7 Innovation, said his morning soda ritual is not just about the caffeine.
“I find that first Diet Coke in the morning is so refreshing,” he said in an e-mail message, noting that he has never worked for a soft drink company. “I sometimes drink caffeine-free and still get the same feeling.”
Jeanne Hurlbert, professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, said some of the interest in carbonated soft drinks for breakfast may stem from Southern influences.
“Coke has been ‘Southern coffee’ at breakfast for some Southerners for a long time,” she said. “It’s really not unusual to see Southern women, particularly, clutching a Diet Coke for breakfast.”
Shapiro said that may stem in part from a marketing campaign Coke ran during the late 1980s in which it encouraged consumers to “Have a Coke in the Morning.”
“During the height of the campaign, the woman who sold coffee in our office told me that more people were drinking Coke than coffee. This is when I started drinking Diet Coke for breakfast,” Shapiro said.
Balzer said the growth of pop for breakfast is probably due to soft-drink consumption by young adults, because the heaviest consumption is in the 18-to-25-year-old group.
“This is a young adult phenomenon,” he said. “This is all about what is the easiest way to get caffeine into your body.”
Despite the growing popularity of traditional soft drinks for breakfast, both Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., parent company of Pepsi Cola, are covering their bets by forming alliances with coffeehouses.
Pepsi has distributed Starbucks products for more than a year, and this month Coke announced that it would begin distributing in 2007 an iced coffee drink under the name of Caribou Coffee Co., the nation’s second-largest coffeehouse chain.
Brent Curry, a vice president with Hill & Knowlton Inc., said Coke and Pepsi shouldn’t bother.
“I have never a been a coffee drinker. I have already had two Diet Mountain Dews this morning. It is one of the first things I do in the morning when I get into my office,” he said, adding that he refrains from drinking the soda with his breakfast.
But that could be subject to change.
Unlike the days when it took him just 10 minutes to get to work, he now commutes on the train, and it’s a longer trip. As a result, he carries a can of Mountain Dew in his briefcase in case the train is delayed.
“If I get desperate, it is there,” Curry said.