The Coca-Cola formula is the Coca-Cola Company's secret recipe for Coca-Cola syrup, which bottlers combine with carbonated water to create the company's flagship cola soft drink. Company founder Asa Candler initiated the veil of secrecy that surrounds the formula in 1891 as a publicity, marketing, and intellectual property protection strategy. While several recipes, each purporting to be the authentic formula, have been published, the company maintains that the actual formula remains a secret, known only to a very few select (and anonymous) employees.
Coca-Cola inventor John Pemberton is known to have shared his original formula with at least four people before his death in 1888. In 1891, Asa Candler purchased the rights to the formula from Pemberton's estate, founded the Coca-Cola Company, and instituted the shroud of secrecy that has since enveloped the formula. He also made significant changes to the ingredients list, which by most accounts improved the flavor, and also entitled him to claim that anyone in possession of Pemberton's original formula no longer knew the "real" formula.
In 1919, Ernest Woodruff led a group of investors in purchasing the company from Candler and his family. As collateral for the acquisition loan, Woodruff placed the only written copy of the secret formula in a vault at the lending bank, Guaranty Bank in New York. In 1925, when the loan had been repaid, Woodruff relocated the written formula to the Trust Company Bank (now SunTrust Bank) in Atlanta. On December 8, 2011, the company placed it in a vault on the grounds of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, where it remains on public "display".
According to the company, only two employees are privy to the complete formula at any given time and they are not permitted to travel together. When one dies, the other must choose a successor within the company and impart the secret to that person. The identity of the two employees in possession of the secret is itself a secret.
During the late 19th century, Coca-Cola was one of many popular coca-based drinks with purported medicinal properties and benefits to health; early marketing materials claimed that Coca-Cola alleviated headaches and acted as a "brain and nerve tonic". Coca leaves were used in Coca-Cola's preparation; the small amount of cocaine they contained—along with caffeine—provided the drink's "tonic" quality. In 1903, cocaine was removed, leaving caffeine as the sole stimulant ingredient, and all medicinal claims were dropped. Coca leaf extract, with the cocaine chemically removed, remains part of the formula as a flavoring. By one account, the FDA still screens random samples of Coca-Cola syrup for the presence of cocaine. The company will neither confirm nor deny that the current version of Coca-Cola contains coca leaf extract, deferring to the secret nature of the formula.
In 1911, the United States Government sued the Coca-Cola Company for violations of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, claiming that the high concentration of caffeine in Coca-Cola syrup was harmful to health. The case was decided in favor of Coca-Cola, but a portion of the decision was set aside in 1916 by the Supreme Court. As part of a settlement, the company agreed to reduce the amount of caffeine in its syrup.
The company protects the secrecy of its syrup recipe by shipping ingredients to its syrup factories in the form of anonymous "merchandises", numbered 1 through 9. Factory managers are told the relative proportions of each numbered merchandise, and the mixing procedure, but not the ingredients in the merchandises, some of which are themselves mixtures of more basic ingredients. Merchandise no. 1 is known to be sugar, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose (see variations, below); caramel coloring is no. 2, caffeine is no. 3, and phosphoric acid is no. 4. The identities of merchandises 5 through 9 are a matter of considerable debate—particularly the legendary "merchandise 7X" (the "X" has never been explained), which is thought to contain a mixture of essential oils such as orange, lime, and lemon. Another ingredient is thought to be lavender. The Stepan Company prepares coca extract for Coca-Cola at its Maywood, New Jersey facility.
Despite the implications of its name, there is no evidence that the current version of Coca-Cola syrup contains kola nut extract; originally included for its caffeine content, modern Coca-Cola uses caffeine citrate produced by the decaffeination of coffee.
The primary taste of Coca-Cola is thought to come from vanilla and cinnamon, with trace amounts of essential oils, and spices such as nutmeg. A 2015 study identified and measured 58 aroma compounds in common colas, confirming significant amounts of compounds corresponding to cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, orange and lemon essential oils in Coca Cola.
Formula variations in the United States
During the 1980s, most U.S. Coca-Cola bottlers switched their primary sweetening ingredient from cane sugar (sucrose) to the cheaper high-fructose corn syrup. The only U.S. bottler still using sucrose year-round is the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Cleveland, which serves northern Ohio and a portion of Pennsylvania. Many bottlers outside the U.S. also continue to use sucrose as the primary sweetener. Twelve-ounce glass bottles of sucrose-sweetened Coca-Cola imported from Mexico are available in many U.S. markets for those consumers who prefer the sucrose version (see "Mexican Coke", below).
Coca-Cola was certified kosher in 1935 by Rabbi Tobias Geffen after beef tallow-derived glycerin was replaced with vegetable glycerin. However, the high-fructose corn syrup used by most U.S. bottlers since the 1980s renders it kitniyot by the definitions of Jewish kosher law, and therefore forbidden during Passover according to certain traditions. Each year, in the weeks leading up to Passover, bottlers in markets with substantial Jewish populations switch to sucrose sweetener in order to obtain Kosher for Passover certification.
In April 1985, in response to marketing research suggesting that a majority of North American consumers preferred the taste of rival Pepsi to Coca-Cola, the company introduced a sweeter, less effervescent version of Coca-Cola in the U.S. and Canada. Although the new formulation had beaten both Pepsi-Cola and the old Coke formula in multiple blind taste tests, consumer response was overwhelmingly negative. The company quickly reintroduced the original beverage, rebranded as "Coca-Cola Classic", while continuing to market the new version as "Coke".
New Coke remained on the market, in North America only, for 17 years—the last 10 as "Coke II"—until it was quietly discontinued in 2002. The "Classic" designation remained on the original product's label, its prominence gradually decreasing over the years, until it was removed entirely in 2009.
In the early 2000s, cane sugar-sweetened Coca-Cola produced in Mexico began to appear in bodegas and Hispanic supermarkets in the Southwest; in 2005, Costco began offering it. All were obtaining the Mexican product—which was not labeled in accordance with U.S. food labeling laws—outside the official Coca-Cola distribution network. In 2009, the Coca-Cola Company began officially importing Coca-Cola produced in Mexico, with proper labeling, for distribution through official channels.
Purported secret recipes
Coca-Cola inventor John Pemberton is said to have written this recipe in his diary shortly before his death in 1888. The recipe does not specify when or how the ingredients are mixed, nor the flavoring oil quantity units of measure (though it implies that the "Merchandise 7X" was mixed first). This was common in recipes at the time, as it was assumed that preparers knew the method.
- 1 oz (28 g) caffeine citrate
- 3 oz (85 g) citric acid
- 1 US fl oz (30 ml) vanilla extract
- 1 US qt (946 ml) lime juice
- 2.5 oz (71 g) "flavoring", i.e., "Merchandise 7X"
- 30 lb (14 kg) sugar
- 4 US fl oz (118.3 ml) fluid extract of coca leaves (flavor essence of the coca leaf).
- 2.5 US gal (9.5 l; 2.1 imp gal) water
- caramel sufficient to give color
- "Mix caffeine acid and lime juice in 1 quart boiling water add vanilla and flavoring when cool."
- Flavoring (Merchandise 7X):
- "Let stand 24 hours."
Recipe is from Food Flavorings: Composition, Manufacture and Use. Makes one 1 US gallon (3.8 l; 0.83 imp gal) of syrup. Yield (used to flavor carbonated water at 1 US fl oz (30 ml) per bottle): 128 bottles, 6.5 US fl oz (190 ml).
- Mix 5 lb (2.3 kg) of sugar with just enough water to dissolve the sugar fully. (High-fructose corn syrup may be substituted for half the sugar.)
- Add 1 1⁄4 oz (35 g) of caramel, 1⁄10 oz (3 g) caffeine, and 2⁄5 oz (11 g) phosphoric acid.
- Extract the cocaine from 5⁄8 drachm (1.1 g) of coca leaf (Truxillo growth of coca preferred) with toluol; discard the cocaine extract.
- Soak the coca leaves and kola nuts (both finely powdered); 1⁄5 drachm (0.35 g) in 3⁄4 oz (21 g) of 20% alcohol.
- California white wine fortified to 20% strength was used as the soaking solution circa 1909, but Coca-Cola may have switched to a simple water/alcohol mixture.
- After soaking, discard the coca and kola and add the liquid to the syrup.
- Add 1 oz (28 g) lime juice (a former ingredient, evidently, that Coca-Cola now denies) or a substitute such as a water solution of citric acid and sodium citrate at lime-juice strength.
- Mix together
- Add 1⁄10 oz (2.8 g) water to the oil mixture and let stand for twenty-four hours at about 60 °F (16 °C). A cloudy layer will separate.
- Take off the clear part of the liquid only and add to the syrup.
- Add 7⁄10 oz (20 g) glycerine (from vegetable source, not hog fat, so the drink can be sold to Jews and Muslims who observe their respective religion's dietary restrictions) and 3⁄10 drachm (0.53 g) of vanilla extract.
- Add water (treated with chlorine) to make a gallon of syrup.
In 2011, Ira Glass announced on his Public Radio International show, This American Life, that TAL staffers had found a recipe in "Everett Beal's Recipe Book", reproduced in the February 28, 1979, issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that they believed was either Pemberton's original formula for Coca-Cola, or a version that he made either before or after the product hit the market in 1886. The formula is very similar to the one found in Pemberton's diary. Coca-Cola archivist Phil Mooney acknowledged that the recipe "could ... be a precursor" to the formula used in the original 1886 product, but emphasized that the original formula is not the same as the one used in the current product.
- Fluid extract of Coca: 3 drams USP
- Citric acid: 3 oz
- Caffeine: 1 oz
- Sugar: 30 lbs
- Water: 2.5 gal
- Lime juice: 2 pints (1 quart)
- Vanilla: 1 oz
- Caramel: 1.5 oz or more for color
The secret 7X flavor (use 2 oz of flavor to 5 gals syrup):
- Alcohol: 8 oz
- Orange oil: 20 drops
- Cinnamon oil: 10 drops
- Lemon oil: 30 drops
- Coriander oil: 5 drops
- Nutmeg oil: 10 drops
- Neroli oil: 10 drops
On January 23, 2011, in a commercial aired during the NFL Football AFC Championship Game, Coca-Cola teased that they would share the secret formula, only to flash a comical "formula" for a few frames. This required the use of a video recording device to freeze on the formula for any analysis, and it ultimately proved to be a marketing ploy with no intention of sharing the full official formula. Ingredients listed in the commercial included nutmeg oil, lime juice, cocoa, vanilla extract, caffeine, "flavoring", and a smile.
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Coke dropped cocaine from its recipe around 1900, but the secret formula still calls for a cocaine-free coca extract produced at a Stepan Co. factory in Maywood, New Jersey.
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- The Recipe and image (pdf), This American Life. See Radio episode and notes.
- Merory, Joseph (1968). Food Flavorings: Composition, Manufacture and Use (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: AVI Publishing.
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- The Recipe and image (pdf), This American Life.