Wednesday, February 16, 2011

This American Life outs Coca-Cola's Original Secret Recipe . . . maybe . . .

Wow!!!!!! Public broadcasting made Big News this week and it didn't have to be de-funded by Congress to do it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the story this way:
Move over, WikiLeaks. A nationally syndicated public radio show claims to have released one of America's most closely guarded secrets -- the recipe for Coca-Cola -- and it's causing an international frenzy. 
circa 1895 sidewalk ad
This American Life  found the list of ingredients deep within the archives of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a 1979 column by Charles Salter. The radio segment aired on various public radio stations over the weekend. 
By Tuesday, the story had gone viral on the Internet and on Twitter; the radio show's website buckled for the first time ever under the weight of unprecedented traffic; the story had appeared in languages ranging from Portuguese to Arabic; and reporters and executives for This American Life  and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were getting media requests from around the world.
Imagine that rascally journalist, Ira Glass, claiming to have unearthed Coca-Cola's top-secret, original recipe!  Complete with the murky and controversial ingredient (gasp! shudder!) "fluid extract of Coca."

Yesterday on her Los Angeles Times' blog "The Daily Dish: The Inside Scoop on Los Angeles" Rene Lynch passed on the perhaps no-longer-secret recipe.

Here's the recipe, from Time via "This American LIfe:" 


Fluid extract of Coca: 3 drams USP
Citric acid: 3 ounces
Caffeine: 1 ounce
Sugar: 30 (unclear quantity)
Water: 2.5 gallons
Lime juice: 2 pints, 1 quart
Vanilla: 1 ounce
Caramel: 1.5 ounces or more for color
When Katie Rogers blogged about the story on The Washington Post's  BlogPost; the site's Twitter feed went mildly wild, mostly with such snarkily blas√© comments as:
Breaking: Not only was the #secretrecipe for Coca Cola deciphered. Desani water recipe also spilled.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

Fast Company, which bills itself as a magazine dedicated to reporting about how the "'fast companies,' entrepreneurs, and cutting-edge are doing what they do" scored an article yesterday written by Chuck Salter, the son of the Chuck Salter who'd locally outed the now internationally-outed recipe back in 1979.


Mr. Salter begins:
Maybe you heard the story that went viral today about how the original recipe for Coke may have been revealed after being closely guarded by the company for 125 years. ABC, CBS, NPR, TimeUSAToday--everybody’s on the case. Maybe you’ve seen the photo of the hand-written recipe in question (above). My dad, Charles Salter, took that photograph 32 years ago as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Charles Salter, a sports columnist of the AJC, and hopefully the right Charles Salter
The column was called the "Georgia Rambler." He’d travel the state looking for colorful people and places, often stories with a historical bent. One of his best sources was the late Everett Beal, a fishing buddy of his who worked as a pharmacist in Griffin, Ga. One day, Everett showed my dad his prized possession, a leather-bound book of recipes that had once belonged to a pharmacist named John Pemberton. The John Pemberton who created the original syrup to make Coke. 
“Coco Cola Improved” was scrawled by hand on page 188, above a list of ingredients. My dad asked Everett if he thought it was the original formula for Coke. “I believe it is,” Everett told him.
Back in Atlanta, my dad showed a photo of the recipe to Coke and asked them the same question. “We don’t as a company comment on or confirm or deny any information you present to us about the formula for Coca-Cola,” my Dad quoted a spokesman saying. 
Coke stayed mum on the subject of their possibly no-longer-secret secret recipe most of yesterday, then around 7:30 last night, the Los Angeles Times' "Daily Dish"  revisited the story to report that . . .
. . . a historian for the soft-drink giant put it to a taste test and confirmed that it was not, in fact, "the real thing,"  [Kerry] Tressler [a Coca-Cola spokeswoman] said. ...[Tressler] did confirm the legend of the formula -- that it actually exists on paper, secure in a bank vault. As to rumors that only two people at the company know the formula at any given time? Well, that might be exaggerated. "We cannot confirm the number of people who are familiar with the formulation, but it is only a small handful," she said. 
Outed along with the possibly no-longer-secret recipe was the possibly no-longer-secret recipe for something named 7X . . .
The secret 7X flavor (use 2 ounces of flavor to 5 gallons of syrup):
Alcohol: 8 ounces
Orange oil: 20 drops
Lemon oil: 30 drops
Nutmeg oil: 10 drops
Coriander: 5 drops
Neroli: 10 drops
Cinnamon: 10 drops
The Straight Dope: Fighting Ignorance since 1973 (it's taking a bit longer than we thought) explains that the presence of 7X is all wrapped up with Coke's use of that aforementioned murky and controversial ingredient "fluid extract of Coca."


John Styth Pemberton

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) is 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.
There you have the straight scoop on Coke's possibly no-longer-secret secret recipe. Breaking Big News courtesy of Ira Glass and This American Life!

And you know, even after this groundbreaking reporting effort, some skeptics will still doubt the wisdom of spending taxpayers' money to keep public broadcasting alive and well and snooping around!

1 comment:

  1. When Coca-Cola was only in the small bottles, it had a distinctive taste. When the cans came out, the contents tasted like, well, Pepsi or generic cola. The bottled Coke still had a distinctive taste. Then at some point, the bottled drink n...o longer had a distinctive taste. "Classic" Coke is a joke --- why compare this "original" recipe with it?
    Not too far in the future, those of us who remember the taste of the original drink will be dead and it will all be moot

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