According to conventional wisdom, the secret formula for Coca-Cola is amongst the most prized and inscrutable mysteries of modern food science. Only the most privileged executives and researchers of The Coca-Cola Company are privy to its exact formulation. So irreplaceable is their access, these anointed individuals must never travel together lest they fall victim to an absence of designated survivors. This secrecy is warranted, of course, because — setting aside that horrendous dalliance with New Coke in 1985 — this hyper-successful cola formulation has remained unchanged since it was first served in Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1886.
Yeah, except almost none of that last paragraph is true, especially the part about Coca-Cola’s formula never changing.
Yes, Coca-Cola attaches a lot of branding hype to its vaunted — and legitimately successful — soft drink formulation for Coca-Cola. (The company makes lots of other drinks, too, though its other formulas don’t warrant the James Bond routine.) Part of that is a reaction to public demand.
Getting back to the New Coke — which was never officially called New Coke, just “the new taste of Coca-Cola” until 1992, when it was rebranded Coke II — The Coca-Cola Company took one of greatest media shellackings in history when New Coke debuted on April 23, 1985. The American consumer considered Coca-Cola a cultural icon that was above revision, so Coca-Cola Classic was released on July 10, 1985 (less than three months after being discontinued), and Coca-Cola executives have leaned into the immutable icon aspect of its signature product ever since, complete with nuclear launch code-level secrecy for the formula.
Problem is, the Coca-Cola Classic that was released after the New Coke fiasco wasn’t the same as the Coca-Cola released before New Coke. The “logic” behind New Coke was two-fold: First, to make the drink sweeter in order to compete with sweeter-tasting rival drink Pepsi; second, to switch all domestic Coca-Cola bottlers from cane sugar to the cheaper high-fructose corn syrup sweeteners. When Coca-Cola Classic came back on the market, it too was made with corn syrup rather than sugar.
And that was far from the only change to the Coke formula over the years. In 1935, the formula was tweaked to be certified kosher. Moreover, John Pemberton, inventor of Coca-Cola, actually sold several different versions of the formula to different buyers — and that was after he had converted it to a carbonated drink, rather than its original alcoholic cocawine formulation.
One ingredient unique to American Coca-Cola is still used — after a fashion — in the formulation. Coca-Cola can rightly claim this additive as a brand differentiator, as it has received special dispensation from the U.S. government to be the sole American corporation to employ this ingredient in a consumer beverage.
WHAT INGREDIENT HAS THE U.S. GOVERNMENT GIVEN COCA-COLA SOLE AND UNIQUE PERMISSION TO USE IN CONSUMER BEVERAGES?
What “secret” ingredient in the formula for Coca-Cola has the soda maker received special permission from the United States government to include in consumer beverages — a legal dispensation unique to The Coca-Cola Company?
The ingredient is spent coca leaf extract. For those drug enforcement agents keeping score at home, coca is the plant from which the narcotic cocaine is derived. The coca leaves used in the manufacture of Coca-Cola are, as noted, spent, meaning that the narcotic has been removed from the plant material. Extracts from these spent leaves are thus employed for flavoring in Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola, you see, was originally conceived by John Pemberton as a patent medicine which could, amongst other things, cure morphine addiction. (Pemberton himself was proof that the medicinal properties of Coca-Cola were a fraud, as he was himself a morphine addict who sold the “rights” to Coca-Cola multiple times in order to feed his habit.) The basis for Coke’s medicinal aura was the presence of two stimulants: coca leaves and kola nuts. The former gave you unprocessed cocaine, the latter caffeine. Thus, the name Coca-Cola.
In 1904, The Coca-Cola Company switched from raw coca leaves to spent coca leaves, thereby drastically reducing — but not eliminating — the trace amounts of cocaine in the drink. It also establishes that folks haven’t been drinking “real” or “original” Coca-Cola for over 100 years.
Since 1970, The U.S. Controlled Substances Act has forbade the import of raw coca leaves into the United States-except for those brought in by Coca-Cola’s exclusive supplier. The Stepan Company, which is primarily a manufacturer of industrial surfactants, operates a plant in Maywood, New Jersey that has exclusive U.S. import rights of raw coca leaves. From the leaves, Stepan produces a narcotic coca extract for a pharmaceutical maker Mallinckrodt, and a non-narcotic extract exclusively for Coca-Cola.
Ostensibly, there is no appreciable narcotic content in contemporary Coca-Cola, though the company does purport that the formula includes a secret ingredient called Merchandise 7X that no one has been able to publicly identify via reverse engineering. Since The Coca-Cola Company admits to the coca leaf extract, it seems unlikely that cocaine is Merchandise 7X — presuming that 7X exists as anything more than a clever marketing device.
Should the day ever arise that someone decodes or reveals the complete, current, and unadulterated formula for Coca-Cola, that won’t just be a banner moment for industrial espionage, but a curiosity-quenching quaff of carbonated Geek Trivia.
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