Was Coca-Cola’s magic ingredient cocaine?

Don’t you just love the jolt you get from Coca-Cola, Buzzkillers? It lifts you up when you’re down. And it gives you energy to get you through the draggy hours of the afternoon. But do you ever wonder where that magic comes from?

Well, for decades, a story flew around that Coke was originally full of coke, as in cocaine. It’s said that the early developers of Coca-Cola stirred cocaine into its famous syrup. Once mixed with energizing carbonated water, early Coca-Cola became irresistible, and customers became addicted. That’s how Coke dominated the soft drink market.

coca-colaAlas, Buzzkillers, this is a myth, but it’s also not a myth. The cocaine in Coca-Cola story is half true, and greatly misunderstood.

Originally formulated in the 1880s by Georgia pharmacist, John Pemberton, the drink that became Coca-Cola did, in fact, contain cocaine. This was partly because Pemberton’s initial motivation was to find a stimulant to help him kick the morphine addiction he’d developed while recovering from his Civil War wounds.

He tinkered with his concoction in its early years and varied it considerably. But the main ingredients that made it distinctive as a soft drink were cocaine, taken from the leaf of the coca plant, and caffeine from the kola nut. The first key point to remember about the “cocaine in Coca-Cola story,” Buzzkillers, is that the amount of cocaine was miniscule, even in its early days when Pemberton was trying to build a following. The second thing to remember is that, during the 1880s and 1890s, it was common for “patent medicines” to contain cocaine, and, indeed, for the manufacturers to advertise it as a therapeutic ingredient. In fact, there were lots of competing coca-based soft drinks on the market at the time. They all claimed that they cured headaches, were a tonic for the brain and the nerves, and that they gave drinkers more energy.

Coke’s inventor, Pemberton, wasn’t necessarily hopping up his concoction to get his customers addicted, and he certainly wasn’t doing anything illegal. But around the turn of the century, various social reformers and health advocates launched campaigns against the dangers of “cocainism” and the “cocaine habit.” They targeted Coca-Cola and similar drinks as unhealthy and even as potential social evils.

In response, the Coca-Cola company first tried to remove cocaine from its syrup in 1903. They replaced it with more caffeine, and stopped claiming that Coke had health benefits. But here’s where it gets technical, Buzzkillers, and fascinating for all you food chemists out there. Pemberton, Coke’s inventor, had died in 1888, but he had always stressed that his soft drink’s name should be a descriptive one. In other words, when it removed cocaine from its drink, the Coca-Cola company couldn’t completely remove the extract of coca leaves from its recipe and at the same time remain true to its founders’ “truth-in-marketing” principles in the Coca-Cola name.

h606bcdpxody82Therefore, the company needed to keep using coca extract, but in a cocaine-free way. They more or less accomplished this by using “spent” coca leaves, which had the cocaine removed before they were put in the drink. Essentially, the process by which this was accomplished only left a residue of the coca plant extract in Coca-Cola recipe, but enough for the company to continue to claim that Coke’s magic formula came partly from the coca plant itself.

Alas, their process wasn’t perfect, and they weren’t able to get rid of all the cocaine until 1929.

How much cocaine was actually in Coca-Cola, you ask? That is difficult to determine with complete accuracy because Pemberton and subsequent Coca-Cola barons tried to keep the formula a secret. Of course, any college chemistry student can break it down and analyze it in the lab these days, but it wasn’t always as easy as that. Scientists here at the Buzzkill Institute have determined that, between when it was invented in the 1880s and 1903, there was as little as 1 part per 200,000 in Coca-Cola syrup. Between 1903 and 1929, when all traces were removed, it went down to 1 part per 50 million. Now, add to both of those almost infinitesimally minuscule amounts, the fact that the standard ratio of carbonated water to syrup in the finished drink was 5 to 1, then you need an electron microscope to see a number that small.

Essentially, there wasn’t enough cocaine in Coca-Cola to get a gnat pulled over for flying under the influence of a controlled substance.

By the way, Buzzkillers, health campaigners eventually went after the caffeine in Coke as well. They were successful in convincing the US government to use the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act to haul Coca-Cola into court in 1911. They claimed that the company was damaging the public’s health through its continued use of caffeine. Coke won that case, but the decision was partly reversed by the Supreme Court in 1916. Rather than continue with these legal hassles, Coca-Cola agreed to reduce the amount of caffeine in its drink, but some remains.

Nowadays, you can chalk up the “buzz” in Coca-Cola to the sugar, caffeine, and the effervescence of the carbonated water. (Even then the effect is mostly psychological.) So have a Coke and a smile, Buzzkillers. The smile will come from the yumminess of the product. You won’t be getting a cocaine buzz, and neither did your great-great-great grandparents.

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Further Reading:

Allen, Frederick. “Secret Formula: How Brilliant Marketing and Relentless Salesmanship Made Coca-Cola the Best-Known Product in the World” (1994)

Pendergrast, Mark. “For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink And the Company That Makes It” (2000)