This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Always Coca-Cola: Coca, Kola, and the *Real* Secret Formula, first released on February 28, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SINGERS: The one that never lets you down… Coke is it! The most refreshing taste around… Coke is it!
SINGERS: The whole world is smiling with me, Coca-Cola that’s right, have a Coke, and a… smile!
SINGERS: Doot doot doot, Coca-Cola, always Coca-Cola!
CYNTHIA GRABER: Some things are just burned into your brain—I know the words to all of those. Apparently Coca-Cola really did teach the world to sing—all of their jingles.
NICOLA TWILLEY: We owe you a sincere apology for putting those earworms in your head, but get used to it because this episode is all Coca-Cola always. This of course is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And if you’ve traveled around the world, you might notice that it doesn’t matter where you go, it doesn’t matter how small the town or village is, you can almost always find a Coke there. Why? How did Coke get so big?
TWILLEY: Because it contains cocaine, obviously. Or does it? What is Coke’s secret formula and why is the recipe for brown carbonated sugar water such a big deal anyway?
GRABER: All that plus the surprising story of a morphine-addicted failing pharmacist who invented the most valuable brand on Earth. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
TWILLEY: And, just before we jump into today’s episode, I have a movie I want to recommend to you. Which is not something we usually do at Gastropod but this is exciting: my husband Geoff, who longtime listeners will have heard on the show many times, he wrote an adorable short story about a family and a depressed ghost and the FBI, and it was adapted by Netflix into a funny family friendly movie and the movie is called We Have a Ghost. And it started streaming on February 24, so please check it out! We Have A Ghost on Netflix.
TWILLEY: So, just in case there are aliens listening to this podcast, I guess we should say what Coca-Cola is?
BART ELMORE: What is Coke? That’s a good question.
GRABER: Bart Elmore is a professor of environmental history at the Ohio State University, and while you might recognize his voice from our episode on Monsanto, he also wrote the book Citizen Coke. In case you’ve never heard of Coke, it’s a brown fizzy liquid.
TWILLEY: But let’s be real, you have heard of Coke.
ELMORE: It’s just ubiquitous. I think there’s a stat that says that it’s the most recognized word just outside of, “okay.” I think it’s the second most recognized word in the world.
GRABER: Coca-Cola’s red and white logo is so widely known that supposedly more than nine out of every ten people on the planet can recognize it. The drink is everywhere, it’s sold in more than 200 countries. More than 1.8 billion servings of Coke are sold every day, that’s enough for almost one out of every four people.
TWILLEY: Like we said, it’s the most valuable brand on the planet, it was the first product ever on the cover of Time magazine, it was the first soda in space. It’s the most, the biggest, and did I already say the most?
GRABER: But back in the late 1800s, more than a century ago, Coke was barely a twinkle in someone’s eye.
ELMORE: If I tell you this story, you’d think, okay, there’s no way this is going to be the best brand the world’s ever known. The truth is that it was started by a guy, John Pemberton, who was really down on his luck. In every single category of his life. He had been a Confederate soldier.
TWILLEY: Which for the record was the losing side in a Civil War that had really ripped the country apart.
GRABER: Post Civil War America was … well, historians like to call it a turbulent time in history here. There was a lot going on.
TWILLEY: Electricity, and trains, and telephones were really transforming the pace of life and scale of industry. People were moving to cities en masse. There was a ton of immigration.
ELMORE: It’s an era of tremendous economic expansion. This is also the period where Quaker Oats, Kodak, all these different brands that are still with us today are first going to emerge because you now have national markets. Because of these communication networks and railroad networks that allow all this to happen.
GRABER: It was a boom time. But it was also a dark time.
ELMORE: You’ve got to remember, this is also a period after a massive American civil war where a lot of Americans are dealing with war wounds. They’re, they’re dealing with anxieties that are brought on by this new kind of frenetic society.
TWILLEY: The Civil War had been a really damaging war, both mentally and physically. So many people lost limbs, there was a huge boom in new prosthetics technology. People were hurt and doctors didn’t have a lot to offer them. Meanwhile, the world was changing faster than a lot of people could handle, and again, there wasn’t exactly a robust mental health care system in the US at the time.
GRABER: This is where folks like Pemberton stepped in. He was a pharmacist. And pharmacists and other, well, hucksters, they were making potions called patent medicines.
ELMORE: These are pharmacists and people who are just trying to make a buck. And they engage in this practice of creating these various quack medicines. They call them patent medicines. Many of them didn’t have any patents, but they were designed to be these kind of mixes that could fix your ailments and heal your wounds.
GRABER: These elixirs had all the “I can fix everything that ails you” type of names. Pond’s Extract was a quote, “vegetable pain destroyer.” Samaritan Nervine was the “nerve conqueror!” And I couldn’t leave out Dr. Sanford’s Great Invigorator.
TWILLEY: At his pharmacy, in Atlanta, our hero John Pemberton developed and sold a whole array of panaceas: Triplex Liver Pills. Globe Flower Cough Syrup. And Extract of Stillingia, which was apparently a blood purifier. Pemberton was also known for getting high on his own supply.
ELMORE: By all accounts, he becomes addicted to morphine. And that’s not surprising, given that he would’ve had access to morphine and would’ve had access to drugs to deal with his pain.
GRABER: Pemberton was not only a Civil War veteran and a morphine addict, but his business life wasn’t going so well either.
ELMORE: He suffers through two fires. Basically his business burns down twice in the 1870s. He goes bankrupt. So now if you’re really keeping score, you got a guy who has, basically, has no cash, whose businesses have been completely ruined. Who’s dealing with a drug addiction and war wounds.
TWILLEY: Pemberton needed a big win, and those Triplex Liver Pills weren’t it.
ELMORE: In Pemberton’s case, his fix for his problems was to be a copycat. Was to essentially look at a product that was doing really well around the world and copy it. And that makes sense, right? He’s down on his luck, it doesn’t have a lot of money. He’s just trying to figure out, okay, how do I get out of the kind of, hole I’m in? And so he sees this product, it’s called Vin Mariani. And so this was a drink that people liked, at the time in the 1870s. And not surprisingly, right, it’s, it’s basically red wine with the stimulant from the coca leaf, the alkaloid cocaine.
GRABER: Yes, cocaine mixed into wine. Coca leaves are from South America, but the leaves and the stimulant cocaine were a relatively new discovery in Europe at the time, and cocaine was all the rage—this wine, Vin Mariani, or vin mariani as it was pronounced in America, was invented in the 1860s by a French guy in Corsica. He had tried to mix cocaine into tea and into paté—but his biggest success was the wine. It was marketed as a way to increase energy, appetite, and mood.
TWILLEY: Most patent medicines didn’t do what they said on the label. But drinking a glass of Vin Mariani was like drinking a glass of red wine and chasing it with a little bump of cocaine, so I’m going to guess it did boost people’s moods.
ELMORE: And, everybody was drinking it. You know, Queen Victoria of England was drinking it. The Pope was drinking it. The president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, was a big proponent of Vin Mariani.
GRABER: Back to the Pope—he even appeared on a poster advertising Vin Mariani and he awarded a Vatican Gold Medal to the inventor for creating such an amazing beverage.
TWILLEY: Because it was a medicine, the recipe for Vin Mariani was published in the French Pharmaceutical Codex. And our down-on-his-luck friend Pemberton pretty much straight up copied it. His only tweak was to give the drink even more of a kick by throwing in a pinch of African kola nut.
GRABER: This was at a time when Europeans were coming across cool new stimulating plants all around the world. They thought the coca leaf in South America was pretty awesome, and they also were into the kola nut from Africa. They thought it had some magical curative powers, but it turns out it just had caffeine.
TWILLEY: Still, Pemberton was pretty sure his knock-off Vin Mariani now with all-new caffeine was going to be a hit. He called it Pemberton’s Wine of Coca, and by the summer of 1884, he was selling as many as 800 bottles at a buck a piece every day. Finally, he had a winner.
ELMORE: But the problem is actually a ban on alcohol that is proposed by the city of Atlanta and passed in the mid 1880s. And you have this temperance movement that’s basically making alcoholic drinks look taboo. And so you can imagine, Pemberton’s finally created this knockoff, he’s actually selling some things. And dang it, there’s this prohibition going on in his hometown.
GRABER: Atlanta went totally dry in 1885, which was a bit of a challenge to this guy who had just started selling a popular wine-based elixir.
ELMORE: So he tinkers with a new formula, a non-alcoholic, coca-based drink that becomes Coca-Cola.
TWILLEY: Which was named after the two key ingredients: coca after the coca leaf, and cola after the kola nut. Which is usually spelled with a k but Pemberton used a c to match the coca part of the name.
GRABER: And then instead of the wine, he added carbonated water!
TWILLEY: This also had the side benefit that Coca-Cola was a ton cheaper to make, because it didn’t have expensive red wine mixed in.
GRABER: Plus Pemberton didn’t have to bottle it himself.
ELMORE: And the way it worked was the soda fountain operator would be sold syrup. That’s how Coke worked. The company was just in the business of selling a kind of concentrate to these soda fountains. And the soda fountain operator would pour a couple ounces of the syrup and then mix it at the location with carbonated water.
TWILLEY: Pemberton launched Coca-Cola in 1886, with an ad in the Atlanta Journal: it said Coca-Cola was Delicious, exclamation point. Refreshing! Exhilarating! Invigorating!
GRABER: But it wasn’t an immediate hit. So he and a business partner passed out tickets to people all over Atlanta, the tickets could get them two free glasses of Coke at a local soda fountain. They even used a city directory to mail tickets to the homes of important Atlantans.
ELMORE: The logic being that, this is a drink that has tremendous quantities of sugar, gives you a dopamine release. It’s got a tremendous amount of caffeine in it, which gives you that kind of buzz. That’s good. It’s even got little amounts of the coca leaf that gives it a small amount of this alkaloid cocaine. Wow. All right. This is a drink that, you know, if you give it to people, they’re going to feel pretty good after drinking it. And the idea was, let ’em try it and they’ll come back. And it was a smart strategy. It worked.
TWILLEY: Coca-Cola quickly had new customers hooked. And meanwhile, it kept its own costs super low. By only shipping syrup and having the fountains add the sparkling water, Coke was saving a fortune. And so, it grew.
GRABER: By the early 1900s, Coca-Cola was already the largest purchaser of sugar in the world. Which is kind of shocking to me. But sadly, Pemberton was no longer around.
ELMORE: He dies. And he just never sees the product become the global brand that it does.
TWILLEY: Just a couple of years after launching Coke, Pemberton was gone and the newly formed Coca-Cola Company had a brand new boss. No more patent medicines: it was all Coca-Cola all the time from now on. And as we all know, Coca-Cola was not just headed for success—Pemberton had actually come up with the recipe for the most popular soft drink of all time.
GRABER: A drink based on two things most of us have never experienced, and that’s coca and kola. What are these two magical ingredients? And are they the secret to Coke’s eventual world domination?
MARTIN VASEY: And this is our kola nut tree here. It’s one of my personal, uh, favorites.
GRABER: Martin Vasey is the owner of Hana Farms at the southern tip of Maui in Hawaii. In addition to his small farm, he has a little overgrown spice grove.
TWILLEY: We visited Martin because we wanted to see the kola part of Coca-Cola in the raw — on the tree.
GRABER: It was kind of tough going to follow Martin along what looked like a trail, but then I looked up and noticed the kola tree that Martin had pointed out. It had white flowers with little red almost like stars at the center of them.
GRABER: Look at those flowers. They’re beautiful.
VASEY: And they smell—well. This doesn’t have a lot of smell, but when they do smell it’s almost like a wine or a…?
TWILLEY: Mm. I’m getting a little smell off this one. You want to take a sniff?
GRABER: Oh yeah. That does smell a little fermented.
TWILLEY: The flowers were pretty, the smell was interesting, but neither of those things are the point of the kola tree, at least as far as humans are concerned. We’re more interested in the kola nut.
[BACKGROUND INSECTS CHIRPING]
TWILLEY: This is not what I was expecting a kola nut to look like. I’ll be honest. It’s purple. It’s…. it’s big, I mean it’s the size of like a ping pong ball? Not as round.
VASEY: Walnut, maybe.
TWILLEY: Large walnut. That’s a good analogy. And it’s purple. I mean, it’s a really pretty color.
TWILLEY: Then we found some that were still in their pale green kola nut protective casing.
TWILLEY: Oh, here are some.
GRABER: Oh yeah! Here are the green ones. They look kinda like a small brain.
VASEY: Yeah, kind of an unusual, bumpy cluster of nuts that are all attached at the center.
GRABER: The kola nut actually smelled a little bit like, well, cola to me, cola with a c, the drink. Once upon a time though, the only kola around was the kind with a k. Which is why we wanted to check it out. Today almost everyone outside of Africa and the Caribbean has forgotten that kola was a caffeine-laden nut before it was a generic brown fizzy drink.
VASEY: The history of kola nut is very interesting. If you look at where it’s mostly grown and used in Africa, it’s a very social… drug, I guess is the way to say. It’s like, here you might share a cup of tea or coffee if you have a guest over and in Africa, where it’s grown most, it’s a very social drug. When people come over to visit, you’ll maybe bring out your kola nut and carve off shavings, and then everybody will chew kola nut. And it kind of gives you a little lift, like a cup of coffee. It makes you talkative.
TWILLEY: Still in West Africa today, kola is essential to community gatherings, but it also has a real cultural value and importance—you can give a kola nut as a religious offering or to show respect. It was traditionally chewed by African soldiers before combat and used to cure everything from constipation to low libido.
GRABER: Martin told us one of his favorite ways to use his kola nuts is based on a Jamaican recipe, the kola nut got to Jamaica from Africa with the slave trade. The recipe is called bissy tea.
VASEY: You make it from a combination of cinnamon and nutmeg and kola nut and a little bit of coconut milk. And make sort of a tea.
GRABER: That sounds pretty tasty.
TWILLEY: Yeah, well, we’ll come back to that. But like we said, in the late 1800s, kola was one of the exotic stimulants that were new to Europeans and were thus all the rage. In Victorian Britain “kola chocolate,” a drink made from kola nuts, sugar and vanilla, was prescribed for invalids and travelers as a way to quote “allay hunger and relieve exhaustion.” And “kola champagne” was sold as a tonic and nerve stimulant.
ELMORE: And the reason that, as far as I could tell, that Pemberton was interested in it, is that he believed to some degree that there was something really powerful about this product. He did seem to think that the caffeine from the kola nut was particularly good caffeine, I’m not sure what made him think that.
GRABER: And it was just wishful thinking, the caffeine in the kola nut is the same caffeine you can find in tea and in coffee. And in fact, in a serving of the original Coca-Cola, you’d have gotten as much caffeine as you’d get in a cup of strong coffee today. That plus what as far as historians can tell was about a tenth of a line of cocaine? Sounds like quite a drink.
TWILLEY: The only problem, at least as far as the baby Coca-Cola company was concerned, is that kola nuts had to be imported all the way from Africa and they were really freaking expensive. So the company needed to find other sources of caffeine to keep up with the demand.
GRABER: The first place the Coca-Cola company turned to for a cheaper caffeine was the sweepings from the floor of factories that dried tea leaves. You couldn’t sell those tea sweepings for tea, so chemical companies bought them and extracted the caffeine and sold it to Coke.
TWILLEY: Which was a win win until the tea bag came along. In the 1950s, tea companies began gathering up their own sweepings and putting them in these newly invented sachets, and Coke was out of luck.
ELMORE: By the mid 1950s, though, decaf coffee really takes off. Decaf coffee wasn’t a big thing in the early part of the 20th century. And Coca-Cola realizes that, wow, that’s a huge opportunity. If you’ve ever wondered where all that caffeine goes that’s being taken out of decaf coffee, it went to Coca-Cola and the soft drink industry. And it was actually the Maxwell House brands, owned by General Foods that were big suppliers to Coca-Cola.
TWILLEY: Problem solved. And as we discussed in our caffeine episode, today you can make as much caffeine as you like in a chemical factory.
GRABER: Coke also changed the levels of caffeine in the drink from time to time, it’s gone up and down over the course of history. Sometimes they cut their caffeine because they just didn’t have enough, but sometimes they cut it because people freaked out about caffeine. This was a big issue in the early 1900s, there was an enthusiastic anti-caffeine movement then.
ELMORE: Folks who looked like they had like, lost their, lost their mind and claiming that the caffeine had done it to them, that they’d become a Coca-Cola fiend. You know, that was one of the terms used. And Coke was able to deal with this assault in part by agreeing to change the caffeine content of the drink and reduce it.
TWILLEY: Today, the best estimate is that there’s about as much caffeine in a can of Coke as half a shot of espresso.
GRABER: But despite the up and down of caffeine levels, and the fact that the company doesn’t get that caffeine from the kola nut, their original source, there is actually still some kola nut in there. Because the company always wanted to be able to call it Coca-Cola. You know, kola, like the nut.
ELMORE: It’s, it’s one of the secret ingredients throughout the 20th century. And yet, you know, even people that were close to this were saying like, does it really add that much flavor to the drink? You know, they seem to question it at every turn.
TWILLEY: Folks we are here to investigate. Let’s get to the bottom of this kola flavor mystery. I brought a kola nut back from Hawaii—don’t tell the plant quarantine police
TWILLEY: My kola nut was unbelievably hard, but I eventually managed to slice off a little bit without losing any fingers.
TWILLEY: Okay, so I’ve got this little chip of kola nut and now I am going to chew it and see what the flavor is.
TWILLEY: Hope Gastropod has a budget for dental repair work.
TWILLEY: Holy Hannah, this is hard. Hmm.
TWILLEY: It’s very bitter. It’s getting more and more bitter the more I chew it. Before, initially, it was just kind of, hmm. Now it’s really, actually… okay. Wow.
TWILLEY: You don’t need to hear the part where I spit it out and frantically wash my mouth out. But that is what happened next.
TWILLEY: Oh, my God, that was disgusting.
GRABER: I thought I’d brought back the kola nut with me from Hawaii but somehow it got lost in transit. Don’t tell any quarantine folks about that, either. But so instead, I ordered kola nut powder on the internet, and the kola nut itself was grown in Jamaica.
GRABER: Smells nice, kind of earthy, a little sweet.
GRABER: Frankly, it doesn’t actually taste much like anything on its own.
GRABER: I then decided to make tea with it, just like Martin suggested. I decided to make one cup of plain kola nut tea and one cup of Martin’s recipe, so I added some cinnamon and then I grated some nutmeg into my cup. I heated up some water…
[WATER POURING, CLINK OF STIRRING]
GRABER: First I tried the plain kola nut tea.
GRABER: Bland and not very tasty.
GRABER: Mmmm. The ones with the spices is good. It tastes kind of like the spices. I can see why coffee, tea and chocolate all won out in the caffeine department, because this doesn’t taste like anything particularly good, unless you put a bunch of other stuff in it, and then it’s fine. But I can see why it didn’t win.
TWILLEY: Cynthia, your experience sounds way better than mine, which kind of makes sense because what I read is that if you dry it and powder it, it does get sweeter, but then everything we know says people did chew and still chew it as a bitter astringent nut, like I did. Which all I can say is, more power to them.
GRABER: I’d definitely stick with the powdered kind. But I also did read that the teaspoon of the stuff I used to make my tea has way more caffeine than a cup of black tea does, so I’ll drink it…sparingly.
TWILLEY: So that’s the kola part of Coca-Cola. And I think it’s fair to say there’s not a lot of the original kola flavor in the soft drink, probably for good reason. Although there’s still plenty of caffeine.
GRABER: But there’s a story about the other half of this famous name, too. Coca. I mean, it’s always shocking to think about a time when Coca-Cola contained cocaine. Is there any coca in Coca-Cola today? That’s coming up, after the break.
TWILLEY: The coca in John Pemberton’s original drink came all the way from South America.
ELMORE: It comes from the coca shrub. That grows particularly well in the Andes. It was consumed in part because it gave folks vigor, gave them a kind of ability to deal with altitude sickness and to deal with, you know, long treks in the mountains.
GRABER: This is still common today, either to chew the coca leaf or make tea out of it. I drank coca leaf tea regularly when I was in Peru to try to deal with how the altitude was making me feel. It tasted kind of green and herbal, and it probably helped, but also, I didn’t feel any particular energy or lift from the coca.
ELMORE: Pemberton realized at that time, and people did at that time, there was a big difference between purified cocaine powder that you might snort or something like that. And the coca leaf, which has, you know, this is a, just a very small amount of this, these alkaloids. And when consumed in a tea, it’s not going to—I, I often argue with my students, I said, you’re going to get more affected by drinking a espresso from Starbucks than you would from having coca tea.
TWILLEY: But Europeans, once they came across the coca leaf, they figured out how to extract and purify the active ingredient, the cocaine. And they went wild for it. In the 1880s, like kola nuts, cocaine was all the rage. Everyone’s favorite psychologist, Freud, loved it, he thought it was a magical substance that really helped with feelings of depression and lethargy. He wrote a whole treatise about it, Uber Coca.
GRABER: Of course there was the Vin Mariani we mentioned, and how much the pope loved his cocaine-spiked wine. And in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock regularly using cocaine to stimulate his brain. He injected himself with something called a seven percent solution, that was something doctors usually injected in real life.
TWILLEY: Doctors were having a blast experimenting with cocaine. It was popular as a topical anesthetic for eye surgery, which is kind of a terrifying idea but probably worked. Pemberton first heard about it when he read a report from the 78-year-old head of the British Medical Society who apparently, chewed coca leaves and then climbed a mountain and didn’t even need lunch afterwards.
GRABER: This wonder drug sounds pretty awesome, and unlike today, cocaine was really easy to get a hold of.
ELMORE: There was no federal laws in the late 19th century or early 1900s that banned either the consumption, sale, or importation of coca leaves in the United States. It was recognized that this was a medicinal product. And a lot of different people were using it.
GRABER: John Pemberton always used coca leaves to make Coca-Cola, not purified cocaine, but coca leaves obviously still do contain some cocaine. So—like we said—the original formula *did* contain a small amount of cocaine.
TWILLEY: But as you probably already assumed, there’s no actual cocaine in Coke today. So what happened?
GRABER: The US did ban cocaine in 1914, but even before that, the head of Coca-Cola, a guy named Asa Candler, he already had the idea to take the drug out of his popular soda.
TWILLEY: At the time, more and more poor people were using cocaine to help them work long hours with not enough to eat. And in a lot of the US, particularly the south, those poor people were black.
ELMORE: Racist, white supremacist fears that are all the rage in the Jim Crow south in the early 1900s. That are claiming that, you know, cocaine, the coca leaf by association is contributing to black crime and these incidences of rape and all these types of things in the American South. These were of course, completely false. They were racist. And yet the, the relationship between coca, cocaine, black crime turns in a way that makes Coca-Cola become very fearful about its connection to the coca leaf. And so, sometime in the early 1900s, what Asa Candler decides to do is remove any trace of the alkaloid cocaine in the drink.
GRABER: But coca was still in the name, and so like with kola, Asa was determined to keep coca a part of the formula.
ELMORE: What’s called decocainized coca leaf extract remains one of the secret ingredients in Coca-Cola. A part of the flavor profile that gives Coke its unique taste. It is the coca leaf with any trace of that cocaine alkaloid removed from it that remains in the drink. But Candler from that point forward and Coke from that point forward, will never acknowledge this connection to coca leaves. Even though it’s importing hundreds of thousands of pounds of this stuff over the course of the 20th century.
TWILLEY: But but but: cocaine is illegal in the United States. Like we said, in 1914, the US made it illegal, and that included the coca leaves themselves. So how exactly was Coca-Cola importing boatloads of coca leaves when they were illegal?
GRABER: This might be my favorite story of all in all of Coca-Cola’s history. Bart told us the company actually lobbied for and received special exemptions that allowed them to import and use coca leaves.
ELMORE: And I know this sounds—I remember when I was doing this, I thought, man, I’m going to sound like a conspiracy theory person saying this because it sounds stranger than fiction. But all of this is as clear as day in the National Archives.
TWILLEY: What’s clear as day is that this Coca-Cola exemption is literally a special clause in the law, just for Coca-Cola. It was in that first piece of legislation banning cocaine in 1914 and it’s been in every other piece of cocaine-related legislation to this day.
GRABER: And it really is just for Coca-Cola. When this exemption clause was first introduced, Coke was the only major company using this extract, to the point that some congressional representatives openly referred to it as a special Coca-Cola exemption.
ELMORE: You know, interestingly, in the National Archives, there were companies that wrote to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the precursor to the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, that said, hey, we’d love to have some decocainized coca leaf. And one of the things you see is just kind of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics dragging its feet, kind of giving these folks the run around. Because, technically there’s this exemption that other people could exploit, but the federal government had a vested interest in making sure that there weren’t a bunch of companies bringing in coca leaves. Because they didn’t want to have to track and trace coca leaf imports in the United States and make sure that, you know, there wasn’t an illicit cocaine network being built up. So it was a really wild exemption. And it not only, you know, went into our own laws, but it also, you know, there’s this 1961 convention on narcotics that the United Nations ultimately approved. Coca-Cola was there too.
TWILLEY: Yep, Coca-Cola’s lobbyists made sure that their existing loophole remained, even in global counter narcotics agreements.
ELMORE: Coke was basically saying, you know, fighting for at the United Nations like we should ban everything, including letting Indigenous people chew this stuff. But let’s keep the exemption for us so that we can get the coca leaves and have them, for our own consumption. It was really remarkable that, that this was able to, to take hold in our laws.
GRABER: This is already bananas, Coke fought and won the right to import coca leaves into the US on an international scale too. They have an exemption on the ban on an international drug trade.
TWILLEY: But there’s more. Just in case the tables turned against them and their bizarre exemption to the international ban on trading coca leaves was taken away, the company came up with a backup plan to create a domestic source.
ELMORE: I mean, they even create a secret coca farm in Hawai’i, to grow their own coca leaves because they’re worried about their supply in Peru being cut off. And they get—this is true—they get federal approval to confidentially grow coca leaves for their beverage in Hawai’i.
TWILLEY: It is really true: for a brief period in the 1960s, all these researchers in Hawai’i were growing coca bushes in the university botanical gardens and experiment stations just to make sure the Coca-Cola kept flowing.
GRABER: Alas, those bushes all got wiped out by a fungus. But while that project might have failed, the flow of coca leaves into the US just for Coca-Cola continues today.
TWILLEY: Legally, a certain number of coca leaves can be brought into the US for medicinal purposes. A chemical company in New Jersey, in Maywood, just a few miles from upper Manhattan, is the one that’s allowed to bring them in.
ELMORE: And those leaves under law were—the cocaine that was taken out of them. Decocainized, I think using a variety of solvents, could be used in the pharmaceutical industry and by hospitals and doctors for legitimate medicinal uses.
GRABER: Like creating a solution of cocaine that can be used as a topical anesthetic—that’s one of the medical uses of cocaine that continues to this day. And then the decocainized leaves are sold to Coke. But those medicinal leaves are not enough.
ELMORE: The other variety of leaves were called special leaves. And this whole category of special leaves was created because of Coke. And it was because Coke was so big, it was growing so wide that we needed more coca leaf flavor than was needed for the medicinal, you know, legitimate hospital market.
TWILLEY: And so then, inquiring minds would like to know, what exactly happens to all the cocaine that comes out of these, quote unquote, special leaves?
ELMORE: What happens to that cocaine? It’s clear from the record in the 20th century that it was to be destroyed. With Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents overseeing the destruction of that cocaine at Maywood.
GRABER: Just in case this story has gone by so quickly that you’re still wondering if you actually heard what you think you heard, you did. In partnership with the chemical company in Maywood, Coca-Cola imports a huge amount of coca leaves, legally, and it creates a huge amount of cocaine, legally, and then it destroys all that cocaine. I mean, Coke doesn’t do this themselves, but they’re the one and only client.
TWILLEY: There’s piles of cocaine being incinerated in New Jersey. For real. And all so that Coca-Cola still contains extract of coca leaves. A teeny tiny amount, with all the cocaine taken out, but it’s there.
GRABER: This is all completely batshit, both because it’s a totally batshit story, and because it’s a batshit story that shows the lengths Coke goes to access coca just because it’s in its name. Because frankly it seems pretty clear that neither coca nor kola is really key to Coca-Cola’s success. I mean apparently neither one contributes all that much in the flavor department. I’ve tried them both, and neither taste anything like Coca-Cola.
TWILLEY: So what is the company’s real secret formula, the key to their international domination? That’s coming up, after the break.
TWILLEY: So far, we’ve discovered the drink named after coca and cola contains vanishingly tiny amounts of either. But that Coca-Cola will go to extreme lengths to keep them in regardless.
ELMORE: I think that tells you a little bit about the mystique of the secret formula itself, that it seems so sacrosanct that even inside the company there’s kind of acknowledgement, wait a minute, does this really add a lot of flavor? Well, we can’t really change it because this, this formula is too important. That was kind of the company line.
GRABER: This secret formula is so legendary and so secret that supposedly it’s locked away, and only two or three people in the company know the formula at any one time.
ELMORE: These were the kinds of things that I kind of laughed at in a way as I was writing it, because I, I could tell that this was part of the marketing scheme and the advertising. That it’s something like, only, you know, that certain number of executives that know it can’t be on the same plane at the same time. Cause if it crashes, then it’s, you know, then, then it would be lost forever. That there’s some kind of wild vault where it is and this kind of stuff. There’s just so much lore around it.
TWILLEY: For the record, over the years people have done plenty of sleuthing, and chemists have done plenty of analyzing, and it’s pretty clear that Coke is made up of sugar, caffeine, citric and phosphoric acids, caramel coloring, vanilla, a tiny bit of kola nut and a tiny bit of coca leaf extract. And then there’s a flavor pack made up of orange oil, lemon oil, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, and neroli, or bitter orange blossom oil. That’s it. That’s the secret.
ELMORE: There’s so much talk about this sacrosanct secret formula. It can’t be changed, it can’t be adjusted. The historical record is clear as day. It has been changed.
GRABER: And not just taking cocaine out of the mix and raising and lowering the caffeine levels. Coca-Cola changed from sugar to high fructose corn syrup in America in 1980, and Coke aficionados think that definitely affects the flavor. It’s why some people prefer Coke made in Mexico because they still use sugar. They’ve changed the make-up of the acids they use, which some say changes the flavor. Clearly the secret formula isn’t the secret to their success.
TWILLEY: Bart argues Coke’s real secret formula is something else entirely.
ELMORE: Coke’s secret formula was not what it did, but what it didn’t do, you know. I think it’s staying out of the business of owning things. They became quite religious at, at some point in their history, in recognizing that the best way to generate the most amount of money was by staying at kind of arm’s length from the actual process of manufacturing the sugar. Owning the decaffeination plants. Even the bottling.
TWILLEY: Honestly, it seems like from the beginning, this was the Coke way. Like we said, keeping its own costs super low by only shipping syrup and having the soda fountains add the sparkling water was one of the real keys to its early success.
ELMORE: Yeah, I mean, you know, look, 80% of the finished product was essentially… water. You know, if you look back even to the beginning of this drink. It’s a little bit of syrup, a lot of water.
GRABER: Which Coke didn’t pay for. And then once Coke started bottling soda instead of selling it at fountain shops—well, Coke didn’t actually do the bottling, either. They worked with independent bottling facilities all around the country that basically only existed to bottle Coca-Cola.
ELMORE: The bottlers are the ones in my story who take a great deal of risk. These are independent bottlers who, for most of the history, were the people who made Coca-Cola work. They paid for the gas, they paid for the trucks, they paid for the, you know, the water, which is 80% of what Coca-Cola’s finished product is.
TWILLEY: Basically, these independent bottlers made the investments and took on the risks that allowed Coca-Cola to expand across the country without increasing its own overhead. Sweet deal.
GRABER: Another sweet deal was the fact that Coke didn’t have to worry about purifying that water. That would have been a major cost, but in the late 1800s, early 1900s, the government began to take that on.
ELMORE: And it was that model of… that kind of franchising model, that had the heaviest and densest ingredient coming from these locations. And none of that would’ve worked, but for these massive investments that cities were paying to build out public water supplies, to create clean drinking water.
TWILLEY: This was a huge investment, cities went into debt to pay for this water treatment infrastructure. But they didn’t build those costs into what they charged the Coca-Cola bottlers for water, at all. Even though Coca-Cola plants were using huge amounts of water. Some cities even cut the price of their water the more the Coke bottlers used.
ELMORE: Just tremendous amounts of taxpayer dollars, bringing this fresh, clean water right into these little basements of these bottling plants. And it’s a, it’s a kind of public debt that’s completely not acknowledged.
GRABER: And Coke kept right on taking advantage of government investments. Coke lobbied hard for the contract to send soda to the front lines in World War II. One of the reasons the company wanted the contract was because there were quotas on sugar consumption during the war.
ELMORE: The exemption for that is if you were serving the troops. And so if you got contracts to provide sugary beverages to the troops, you could do as much business as you wanted. And Coke got that. Dwight Eisenhower, from the front line said, I don’t want any of these other beverages. I want millions and millions of bottles of Coca-Cola. By some estimates, these contracts led to about 10 billion bottle sales of Coca-Cola during World War II.
TWILLEY: This military assistance—it wasn’t just limited to having enough sugar and making a lot of sales. Once Eisenhower had decided that every American in every theater of war needed to be able to have a Coke for morale reasons, the military basically went about making that happen. The US military literally paid for the pipes, the pumps, the refrigerators, and the trucks that spread Coca-Cola around the world.
GRABER: The military used their aircraft and ships to carry syrup and bottles deep into battlefields. And they even helped build bottling factories overseas. Those were often run by American servicemen. It’s kind of astounding—all that for Coke.
ELMORE: It wasn’t just that they sold the beverages during the war, but it had a huge and lasting impact on that brand strength going forward. And around the globe. Because the military was building something like 64 Coca-Cola bottling plants, wherever the soldiers went. And then those became hubs for global domination afterwards. So yeah, war was a huge deal.
TWILLEY: By the end of the war, Coke made about a third of its profits from overseas sales. And in the following decades, it used even more government handouts, in the form of overseas development aid, to boost that up to half of its profits.
ELMORE: Yeah, I mean, at every turn you can see that Coke has benefited immensely from a close partnership with the federal government.
TWILLEY: Another kind of government handout for Coca-Cola came indirectly, from agriculture subsidies. When Coke got started in the 1880s, there were huge sugar subsidies, but over the course of the twentieth century, that switched to corn subsidies. And, guess what, Coke switched too. By the 1980s, Cokes were sweetened with 100 percent high fructose corn syrup.
GRABER: And with this form of government assistance in hand, Coke kicked off a new phase in its expansion, and that was the expansion of the bottle. Coke started to supersize itself, from an 8 ounce bottle into a 20-ounce one, and then even a 64 ounce bottle. And that’s because the company saw that people would pay a little more for a bigger product—but corn syrup was so cheap that it only cost pennies for Coke to go big.
TWILLEY: And the not-so-surprising result was that Americans drank more soda. A lot more. And we’ve made an entire mini series of Gastropod about what that has done to our health—we’ll link to it in the show notes if you haven’t already listened, but spoiler alert: the overall health impact was not good.
GRABER: Might not have been great for us, but their business strategy has been great for Coke’s bottom line. They save money by not spending it on water, or paying market rates for their sweetener, or investing in infrastructure. But they didn’t just sit on that pile of cash, they used it to grow even bigger—by almost inventing mass-market advertising.
ELMORE: You don’t get an advertising budget like that if you’re spending money on other things. You know, one could argue that the fact that they can plaster their name on almost everything and spend so much money on posters and Super Bowl commercials and everything else is because they keep that overhead cost down
TWILLEY: Plastering their name all over everything has been a Coke strategy from the start. As early as 1894, they were painting Coca-Cola’s logo all over the side of buildings. Later on, Coke’s boss commissioned a huge study of national traffic patterns to find the busiest intersections in America, in order to put up billboards there. Coca-Cola ended up with the most billboards of any company in the country.
GRABER: Coca-Cola also basically invented the concept of national merch. In the mid 1910s, they spent more than a million dollars every year on all sorts of crap to get people to notice them. They made calendars and serving trays and playing cards. There were painted drinking glasses.
TWILLEY: They also branded the American built environment by giving out Coke awnings and signs and decor, first to soda fountains, and then to small groceries and diners all across America.
GRABER: And that’s before we get to all their tv ads.
FEMALE SINGERS: There’s nothing like a Coca-Cola, nothing like a Coke.
MALE SINGERS: Things go better with Coca-Cola, things go better with Coke. An extra carton of Coke!
SINGERS: The biggest taste you’ve ever found—Coke is it! The one that never lets you down—Coke is it! The most refreshing taste around… Coke is it!
SINGERS: That’s the way it should be—I’d like to see, the whole world smiling at me. Coca-Cola, that’s right! Have a Coke and we’ll… smile!
SINGERS: Doot doot doot doot doot, Always Coca-Cola.
ELMORE: Always Coca-Cola. I’m thinking of the 1990s. I grew up in that period in Atlanta. (sings) Always Coca-Cola.
TWILLEY: This was also the defining Coke jingle of my youth. And it still gets stuck in my head for days on end.
GRABER: I know all the jingles, but also for me, there’s a kind of weird story from my childhood—I learned to sing a song in elementary school, in music class, called I’d like to teach the world to sing.
WOMAN: (singing) I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony…
GRABER: At the time I never realized that the song was a spin-off of a Coke commercial.
SINGERS: Sing with me, in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company. It’s the real thing…
TWILLEY: This ad, which was also the pinnacle of the fictional Don Draper’s career in Mad Men, RIP—the real thing was a huge production filmed on a hillside in Italy in 1971. And the song immediately caught on. Radio stations were getting bombarded with requests to play it—but it was an ad. They couldn’t give away free advertising space.
GRABER: So, and I still can’t really believe this story, the ad company rewrote the song and cut out all references to Coke, and the same group of British folk singers recorded it, and it hit the top of the charts. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and then years later it infiltrated my elementary school.
WOMAN: (singing) …For peace throughout the land. That’s the song I hear, let the world sing today…
TWILLEY: That’s just the thing about Coke, and its advertising. It infiltrates. I mean the perfect example is the way Coke’s ads shaped our perception of Santa as this fat jolly man in a red and white suit. They didn’t invent the concept of Santa or his red and white suit, but they popularized it, and in doing so, they linked Christmas and Coke in a whole lot of impressionable minds.
GRABER: Between Santa and pop songs and the American military and literally hiring Norman Rockwell to paint its advertising images, Coke has kind of defined America, and tied itself to the meaning of American-ness.
TWILLEY: And honestly, that’s a part of its secret formula too. We’ve been telling you the story of Coke’s secret formula, but the truth is, it’s not what you think it is. The precious unchangeable secret formula in a vault is a total marketing myth. But Coke really does have a secret formula, and it goes like this: outsource everything, take every handout in the book, and then spend the savings on all kinds of creative ways to worm yourself into our brains, our hearts, and ultimately our stomachs.
GRABER: Coke wasn’t the only one who followed this formula, but they were one of the first, and certainly one of the biggest, and it worked. In fact over the years it became kind of a template for other companies to follow in their pursuit of national and world domination.
TWILLEY: Always Coca-Cola.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Bart Elmore, his book is called Citizen Coke, links on our website, and of course thanks to our fantastic producer Claudia Geib.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with a tropical adventure.
GRABER: ‘Til then!