Is it true Coca-Cola once contained cocaine?

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Dear Cecil: When Coca-Cola launched the ill-fated New Coke, news accounts said the change in Coke’s legendary flavor formula was the first in the company’s 99-year history. But back when Coke got started, the company led the public to believe that the coca shrub — the source of cocaine — provided one of the ingredients, giving consumers that extra lift that we now associate with mirrors, tiny spoons, and rolled-up hundred-dollar bills. Of course back then cocaine was legal and sold over the counter. So how can Coke say the formula hasn’t changed in 99 years? Has cocaine been part of their formula up till now? Or were they misleading the public back in 1886? Did they change the formula when cocaine became illegal? Personally I don’t particularly care about cocaine one way or the other. All I want to know is if Coke was then or is now fibbing. Phillip F., Los Angeles


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Depends on your definition of fibbing, Felipe. But here, let me tell the whole sordid tale.

Coke was originally formulated in 1886 by one John Styth Pemberton, an Atlanta druggist and former Confederate army officer. Among other things it contained (and presumably still contains) three parts coca leaves to one part cola nut. The new soft drink was one of many concoctions in that era containing cocaine, which was being touted as a benign substitute for alcohol. Coke, in fact, was promoted as a patent medicine, which would “cure all nervous afflictions — Sick Headache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, Etc. …” How much cocaine Coke actually contained and how much kick you got from it is not known (a Coke spokesman today says the amount was “trivial”). But for years Southerners called the stuff “dope” or “a shot in the arm,” while soda fountains were called “hop joints” and Coke delivery trucks “dope wagons.”

In the 1890s, however, public sentiment began to turn against cocaine, which among other things was believed to be a cause of racial violence by drug-crazed blacks. In 1903 the New York Tribune published an article linking cocaine with black crime and calling for legal action against Coca-Cola. Shortly thereafter Coke quietly switched from fresh to “spent” coca leaves (i.e., what’s left over after the cocaine has been removed). It also stopped advertising Coke as a cure for what ails you and instead promoted it simply as a refreshing beverage.

Does the substitution of denatured coca for The Real Thing constitute a change in the magic Coke formula? Not according to Coke. The true source of Coke’s unique flavor, the company contends, lies not in the coca/cola combination but in the special mix of oils and flavorings added thereto, including the mysterious ingredient known as Merchandise 7X.

The formula is kept in a bank vault and known to only a handful of Coke employees (and of course at least one other person — but I’ll never tell). It was this formula that Coke changed when it introduced the infamous New Coke, replacing Merchandise 7X with an updated Merchandise 7X-100.

There are those who say that Asa Candler, who bought the infant Coke company from Pemberton, tinkered with the formula a bit before settling on a version that he liked; and these folks claim that the formula thus cannot truly be said to be 99 years old. Others regard this as contemptible nitpicking. Still, whatever may be said about the formula, Coke’s taste has certainly altered over the years. The most radical (and to serious Coke aficionados, most upsetting) change came in 1980, when Coke, in an effort to control costs, permitted its bottlers to substitute high-fructose corn sweetener for the beet and cane sugar once used in the product. The result was that Coke’s previously crisp and bracing taste was sadly blunted. For that reason I didn’t share the feelings of the fanatics who stocked up on “old” Coke when the new version was first introduced. The regrettable fact is that Coke hasn’t been It for many years.

Further insight from the Teeming Millions
Dear Cecil:

Regarding your column about Coca-Cola, did you know that in 1912 D.W. Griffith directed a short film called For His Son that featured a soft drink spiked with drugs? The hero is a small-town district attorney who learns that a popular beverage concocted by the town druggist called Dopokoke is aptly named because it contains a good dose of cocaine. Of course all the town’s housewives and young people become addicted to the stuff and the DA has a devil of a time shutting production down.

When I first saw the film about 15 years ago I thought it had probably been financed by the beer industry in a laughable effort to discredit a fast-rising competitor (which, come to think of it, may still have been true). At the time I didn’t know about Coke’s original formula.

— Bob S., North Hollywood, California

Thanks for the info, brother. Speaking of original formulas, it seems I’m not the only one to complain about the substitution of corn sweetener for syrup in “old” (now “classic”) Coke. I have here a full page ad placed by the Sugar Association, a trade group, that mentions an organization called the Old Cola Drinkers of America. At a 1985 press conference the OCDA lambasting Coke for not restoring sugar to their product when they came out with Classic Coke. The leader of the group is quoted as saying, “It is not the original formula; it is not the Coke of my youth.” The ad goes on to claim that the use of sugar substitute contributed to Coke’s decline in market share in the early 80s.

I never heard of the Old Cola Drinkers before, and for all I know they’re on the payroll of the sugar barons. But I’m totally in accord with their sentiments. For what it’s worth, you can still get Coke made with sugar in parts of Mexico, Canada, Hawaii, and Europe.

Cecil Adams

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