​Coca-Cola or PepsiCo: Which stock looks tastier now?

Coke or Pepsi? It depends. One may relish PepsiCo's (PEP) soft-drink flavor, but not its stock. And one who may opt for Coca-Cola's (KO) stock, may prefer to drink Pepsi-Cola. Or vice versa.

But in terms of investing, shares of the two nonalcoholic beverage companies so far this year have had identical results: They've been smart winners.

Consumer appeal is paramount to these products' future, but investor support is equally important because it's vital to both companies' long-term growth. Indeed, consumer choice is intertwined with investor interest in deciding which stock to buy -- Coca-Cola or PepsiCo -- for an investment portfolio.

Shares of Coca-Cola, the world's largest producer of soft-drink concentrates and syrups as well as juices, and Pepsico, a global leader in both the beverage and snack industries, have been in a sharp ascent from their 2015 lows. Coke has run up to more than $46 a share, from $37 last summer, which wasn't too far from its 52-week low around $36.50. Pepsico's stock has also leaped, to just under $104 a share from $90 in September.

So, which stock has the broader appeal to investors at this point?

On Wall Street, Coca-Cola currently appears to be the favored stock among analysts, who forecast the company's sales volume will rise 2 percent to 3 percent over the next two years. For Pepsico, however, they expect flat to lower volume. Investment firm Stifel on April 14 upgraded shares of Coca-Cola to "buy" from "neutral," but it downgraded Pepsico to "hold" from "buy."

Among the biggest long-term investors in Coca-Cola are some of the largest U.S. institutional investors, led by Warren Buffett-controlled Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), which owns 9.2% of shares outstanding (Warren Buffett's son Howard sits on Coke's board); Vanguard Group, which holds more than 6%; and State Street, which has a 3.8% stake.

"Coca-Cola's brand-driven intangible assets and strong cost advantages as the world's largest beverage company support its wide economic moat and long-term growth trajectory," said Adam Fleck, equity analyst at Morningstar, in his latest appraisal of the company. He sees the emerging and developing markets contributing the bulk of Coca-Cola's revenue growth.

Aware that health issues, mainly the use of sugar and other sweeteners in the beverages, have hurt industry sales, Fleck acknowledged that declining consumption of carbonated beverages in North America is a headwind for Coke. But he believes international markets will provide long-term growth opportunities given lower per capita consumption levels. In addition, Coke's "dominant market position in many regions should support continued strong pricing actions," argued Fleck.

Nik Modi, equity analyst at RBC Capital Markets, who recently raised his price target for Coke to $51 a share from $47, said in a note to clients that "we believe we are at the precipice of Coke inflecting to a period of sustained out-performance, particularly among its consumer staples mega peers under our coverage (including PepsiCo and Phillip Morris [MO])." The analyst, who rates Coca-Cola as "outperform," also sees close to 20 percent total return over the next 12 months and about 60 percent upside over the next five years.

Modi pointed out that among the major distinct factors for growth at Coca-Cola investors have overlooked include "volume acceleration as a result of the company's re-franchising efforts," a growing cost consciousness, which should show up in "best-in-class profit-per-employee metrics," and Coca-Cola's new approach to marketing and its impact on growth and market share trends.

Undoubtedly, the nonalcoholic beverage industry faces continuing challenges, but Coke "remains attractive in the context of historical multiples," said Bonnie Herzog, senior analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, who rates the stock as outperform with a price target of $51 a share. Looking at Coca-Cola's long-term prospects, Herzog noted that based on in-depth analysis, she projects gross margins in 2018 will widen to 36.5 percent from the current 23.4 percent, and return on invested capital will rise to 34.2 percent from 20.6 percent.

So, despite the "challenging macro-environmental and structural headwinds," said Herzog, "we remain very encouraged by the underlying momentum in Coca-Cola's business," adding that the firm believes it's "well positioned to outperform over the next year."