Dear Straight Dope:
Since my youth, I have enjoyed the soft drink Dr Pepper. During that time friends of mine have often mentioned a popular rumor which claims Dr Pepper is composed mostly or partially of prunes or prune juice. One even went so far as to suggest that the 10-2-4 slogan was the times one should drink it "to keep one regular."
Personally, I have always been skeptical of this. The few sources I have managed to find about the soft drink or its parent company have stated, sometimes specifically, that there are no prunes in Dr Pepper. However, none of them elaborate much, if at all, on this point. More aggravating yet, my friends have persisted in clinging to their ignorance even in light of these facts.
Having exhausted these other avenues of inquiry, what other recourse could I have but to turn to the one irrefutable source, the Straight Dope?
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
Nope, no prunes, never were.
There is also no period after Dr in Dr Pepper (it was dropped in the 50s). Mr. Haldeman is an observant fellow. I didn’t know this until yesterday.
Dr Pepper is older than any of the other major soft drinks in America — older than Coke, Pepsi and 7Up. It was concocted in 1885 at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas by the pharmacist, Charles Alderton. People ordered the drink there by asking Alderton to “shoot (them) a Waco.” He wasn’t interested in soft drink production, though, so he went back to pharmacy work and gave the recipe to the store owner, Wade Morrison, and a young beverage chemist, Robert S. Lazenby. Morrison came up with the name, but nobody really knows where he got it. You can find a dozen different theories on the web and at the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco. One story says that a pharmacist named Dr. Charles Pepper gave Morrison his first job, so Morrison returned the favor by naming the new drink after him.
In the 1920s, Lazenby’s son-in-law, J.B. O’Hara (who had become involved in company management), discovered research showing that sugar provided energy and that most people experience a let-down during the work day at around 10:30am, 2:30pm, and 4:30pm. That was the origin of the advertising slogan, “Drink a bite to eat at 10, 2, and 4.” I’m sure the caffeine didn’t hurt, either. There have been a number of other “peppy” slogans, including the one I now can’t get out of my head, “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Pepper, Too?” The current slogan apparently is, “Now is the time.” So looks like they’re not limiting you to 10, 2, and 4 anymore.
What’s in it? The Dr Pepper company denies cherry and kola flavorings. They also deny the other rumors that Dr Pepper now or ever contained prunes, black pepper, chili pepper, bell pepper, peppermint, or prune juice. According to William Poundstone in his book Big Secrets, “the formula contains 23 ingredients and is locked in two bank vaults. Four people know it. The only surprise ingredient on the label ingredient panel is lactic acid. That is what gives sour milk its bite. If you hold some Dr Pepper in your mouth a few minutes before swallowing, there is a slight yogurt like note.” He goes on to say that a query to the Dr Pepper company vice president confirmed that synthetic vanillin is an ingredient.
Looking at the label on the can I see neither lactic acid nor vanillin, but they could be included in the category “artificial flavors.” Here’s what I found: “carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, artificial and natural flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), caffeine.” Dr Pepper in some regions lists “Imperial Cane Sugar” in the label ingredients, and in other regions you’ll see “high fructose corn syrup.” True afficionados claim the cane sugar version tastes better (some of us prefer wine tasting, but there’s room on the planet for all kinds of folks).
Apparently in Canada lactic acid is sometimes listed on the can, as well as polyethylene glycol. In the 1950s, the Dr Pepper company published a brochure that said, “Its unique flavor results from the blending of pure fruit flavors (gathered throughout the world) with mystic spices from far-off Madagascar, and clean, clear distilled sparkling water.” I guess polyethylene glycol could be one of those mystic spices. Dr Pepper contains 39.6 milligrams of caffeine in every 12 oz. can.
Several other soft drink manufacturers have tried to rip off the Dr Pepper flavor. Mr. Pibb is Coca Cola’s unsuccessful effort to drive the good Dr out of the market. According to Advertising Age (December 1997), Coke is planning another Dr Pepper clone that is due out soon.
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