Friday, September 28, 2012

You can tell Coke from Pepsi, but can you tell what's in it?


How good are you at guessing ingredients? Can you tell what’s flavoring your soup or what gave that spice rub its zing?

If you’re like most people, you’re pretty confident you can identify flavors in your food and drink. So, you tell me: what gives the most popular soft drink the world has ever known its distinctive taste?

I’m referring, of course, to Coke—Coca-Cola, to use its official name. Almost everyone claims to be able to tell Coke from Pepsi, but can you isolate just what it is that gives it that unique flavor? Despite the fact that, according to recent statistics, somewhere on the order of 13,000 eight-ounce servings are consumed every second of every day—that translates to approximately 1.2 billion servings each day—I bet that very few of you can tell me what’s in the stuff.

Most people know that the “Coca” in its name comes from the South American coca plant, the same plant that, with the help of a series of complicated chemical processes, gives us cocaine. They’re right, but that tidbit doesn’t help you answer my question about today’s soda. 

Yes, it was the leaves of the coca plant that the Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton used when he concocted the earliest version of the drink back in the 1880’s, known then as Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He was trying to cash in on some of the success of the popular drink of the day: Vin Mariani, a French medicinal tonic made from Bordeaux wine treated with coca leaves and enjoyed by the likes of Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant, and Popes Leo XIII and Pius X. Both Vin Mariani and Pemberton’s French Wine Coca claimed to cure almost anything that ailed you, from constipation to neurasthenia, exhaustion to impotence. And maybe they did. The other ingredients Pemberton incorporated into his French Wine Coca were the caffeine-containing kola nut from the rainforests of Africa and the damiana shrub native to Texas and Mexico where the leaves had long been steeped and drunk as an aphrodisiac. So maybe between the coca, the kola, and the damiana, that French Wine Coca really could cure what ailed you—or at least wake you up and get you feeling in the mood.

 But how did Pemberton’s wine turn into our soda?

When Atlanta County prohibited alcohol in 1885, Dr. Pemberton remained undaunted and cleverly replaced the wine in his French Wine Coca with carbonated water (then called soda water) and sugar syrup. He must have known that you’re unlikely to lose money if you appeal to our nation’s sweet tooth.

So, are you any closer to identifying the flavors in today’s Coke? I don’t think so. Yes, it’s still sweet and carbonated and yes, it’s still flavored with coca leaves (entirely cocaine-free) and still get its caffeine from kola nuts (I don’t know whether the formula still includes damiana). But the rest?


For the longest time the formula was as strictly guarded as the gold at Fort Knox or Colonel Sanders’ “original recipe” of 11 herbs and spices. The original copy was kept in a vault in an Atlanta bank for 86 years until it was transferred to a new vault which is currently on display at the Coca-Cola museum in downtown Atlanta. Legend holds that only two executives know the formula at any one time, each one knowing only half.

In reality, the formula was discovered in 1979 and published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

1 oz caffeine citrate
3 oz citric acid
1 oz vanilla extract
1 quart lime juice
2.5 oz “flavoring” (Merchandise 7X) (See below)
30 lb sugar
4 oz fluid extract of coca leaves
2.5 gallons water
caramel sufficient to give color

“Flavoring (Merchandise 7X)”: (Note that quantities weren’t specified)
1 quart alcohol
80 oil orange
40 oil cinnamon
120 oil lemon
20 oil coriander
40 oil nutmeg
40 oil neroli

With only a few changes, this is still more or less the recipe for Coke. So, now you know what you’re tasting when you drink your share of the 1.2 billion servings of Coke downed every day. Vanilla, cinnamon, citrus, spices, and a whole lot of sugar—or, since 1985, high fructose corn syrup.



  1. I'm actually kind of surprised that the ingredients haven't changed MORE from the original recipe.

    1. Hi Melanie: I was surprised too. I just found out, by the way, that Coca-Cola ran a commercial during a football game last year in which they divulged (a few of) their ingredients: nutmeg oil, lime juice cocoa, vanilla, caffeine, and "flavorings." So not so different from Pemberton's recipe all those years ago!