Geek Trivia: Everything old is new (Coke) again

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?

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.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...