Ricola ™ versus CVS “Natural Herb” Cough Drops
Among other things, I’ve had a really bad cough for over two weeks now. I’m sick of being sick. So I guess I’ll just do the “bloggy” thing and write obsessively about my product encounters during this time.
RICOLA: I’ve always been a fan of this premium brand of cough drops. If I’m going through a lot of them, I’ll sometimes vary them with a good ‘ol HALLS Menthol / Honey-Lemon / vapor-action whatever lozenge here and there, just to keep things fresh and interesting.
This time around however, I decided to try out the world of generics and went with CVS‘s “Natural Herb” Cough Drops. As usual, CVS had its private label brand placed next to the Ricola, for about a dollar less, with packaging that echoed Ricola’s, and yet somehow said, “this is a cheaper alternative.”
A couple of other things jumped out to me right away. For one thing, although the packaging had the expected “Compare to the active Ingredient of Ricola” messaging on it, the active ingredient in this case is 4.8 mg of Menthol in each drop. For those who are fans of Ricola, you know that the “Ricola difference” isn’t in the Menthol (which is a widely used cough suppressant / oral anesthetic). Rather what defines Ricola is a rock-hard, almost rustic, rectangular drop, with a unique taste. Ahh yes, the superbly delicate blend of Ricola herbs (which are presumably hand-plucked by quaintly dressed villagers from the base of the Swiss Alps), with its strong notes of anise, fennel and honey… it’s enough to make me yodel with delight.
Well, even without the mountain-scape that Ricola has on its outer packaging, CVS was thoughtful enough to include a graphic of some flowering herbs on the bag. This image said a lot more to me than a statement about 4.8 mg of Menthol. The ingredients list was in alphabetical order and included all that great stuff Ricola has: blackberry leaves, chamomile, cowslip, elderblossom, eucalyptus leaves (ok, maybe it doesn’t all come from the Alps), fennel, Iceland moss (?), licorice, lungwort, marigold, sage and yarrow. I left a few out because, ya know, I don’t want to obsess over this or anything. You get the picture.
The other thing that I noticed was the “Product of Switzerland” note on the back of the CVS package. The plot thickened as I opened up the package and saw that each drop was wrapped in a strange, un-CVS-like wrapper, which said “ORIGINAL SWISS QUALITY” on it, with a drawing of a mountainpeak. Is this a case of Ricola producing its own generic version? It wouldn’t be the first time a company did that.
But then, I tasted it… and it wasn’t exactly the same. The anise was still there… but those notes had faded to the faintest of distant yodels… and there was, in fact, a stronger MENTHOL taste. Also, although the shape was similar, but slightly rounded, with a more consistent ribbing that seemed more regular, dare I say, mechanical than the might-be-hand-pressed look of Ricola. The texture was different, almost imperceptibly softer and less crystalline / brittle to the teeth. Wow, this is interesting you say… absolutely riveting. Hey, don’t make fun of me, you’re the one taking the time to read this. Ha!
The plot thickens: For all my thoughts of how clever the Ricola folks have been to preserve their unique brand experience even while capturing that extra bit of market share from ever-more powerful retailers (thus reinforcing my sense of brand loyalty me being the post-consumerist consumer that I am), I actually find that the CVS brand works better for my cough than the original Ricola’s does. I go back to CVS to pick up another bag. Then I notice something else.
There are two prices for the bag of 21 CVS “Natural Herb” cough drops: $1.69 and $1.49. But on further inspection, I notice that these are actually two different products: The cheaper one does not say “Compare to the active Ingredient of Ricola.” (It does, in fact, contain the same 4.8 mg of Menthol per drop.) This other product has the same graphics (images of flowering herbs), except for one detail: The picture of the cough drop is actually oval/lozenge shaped, although the same dark brown color. Finally, the coup de grace, it is NOT a Product of Switzerland.
Well, I’m really intrigued now. So I buy a bag of each to compare.
Having the lozenge shape, these other cough drops have a more comfortable tactile feel , resting neatly between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. As for the taste, it is as if they took it one step further removed from the distinctive herbal-ness of the Ricola taste and closer to the world of general, sugary cough drops. The anise is almost gone, a mere echo of a yodel of years gone by. The villagers and their quaint costumes have left, the Alps are gone, and all that can be heard is the beep-beep-beep of a truck backing out of a distribution facility in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
I say this, and yet, I think these cough drops work even better. At least for today.
It seems that the listed ingredients of the original Ricola’s (column 1) are closer to those of the oval shaped CVS throat drops (column 3), and very different than the CVS Ricola-wannabe (column 2) throat drops. While all three have the key flavor of peppermint, as well as sage and thyme, as you can see in the chart above, the first and third samples overlap almost entirely, with mallow as the only deviation.
Not only that, but there are a number of key items in common between #1 and #3 which don’t appear in #2, including hyssop and horehound (a traditional medicinal herb, sometimes referred to as Common Horehound, which doesn’t sound much better).
Both #1 and #3 are heavy on the peppermint flavor and have lemon balm. While I’ve always associated Ricola with an anise flavor, said herb is not mentioned in #1 or #3… it’s only with #2 that has both star anise and licorice listed as ingredients.
It could be that one of the other herbs in the Ricola mix have that anise-like flavor. Or it could be that I was imagining it. Or… it could be that Ricola doesn’t list all of the herbs in its proprietary formula. Of course, these ingredient lists should be taken with a grain of wild thyme. Most of these herbs are in such small quantities that they probably don’t require being stated on an ingredient list, and therefore, their inclusion is voluntary. Therefore, it is a form of marketing.
There is the possibility that the private-label “Original Swiss Quality” (#2) was executed with a stricter requirement of listing minute amounts of potentially allergenic substances.
Or it could be that CVS decided that the “Original Swiss Quality” private label lozenges were not close enough to the Ricola taste, and found a formula that better matches it.
The color and translucence of #1 and #3 as seen through the light of my scanner is certainly a better match. Perhaps #2 is cloudier because of all that crazy cowslip.
I’m beginning to suspect #3 actually does taste more like #1, but it could just be the peppermintiness. I’d like to say that I can do a definitive taste test (crush it up into powder, maybe?) but if you take enough of these throat drops as I have, it’s hard to tell anything apart.