Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

When the Children of the Nineties survey discovered that a good number of mothers were feeding their babies cola, the public were shocked. But, believe it or not, Coca-Cola was originally developed as a healthy medicine. Its inventor was John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist by trade, whose aim was to develop new ‘brain tonics’.

He also had personal motivations. After receiving pain relief treatment as an injured soldier in 1865, Pemberton had become addicted to morphine. This was not an uncommon problem amongst war veterans, but as a pharmacist, Pemberton was especially aware of the dangers of his addiction. He tried many mixtures in the hopes of developing an opium-free alternative, including his amusingly-named, if unprofitable, ‘Dr Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower’.

Soon, Pemberton started playing around with the recipe for a popular drink, Vin Mariani, that combined Bordeaux red wine with coca leaf extract. The cocaine in the coca leaf naturally gave the wine a bit of a kick, making it inevitably popular. Pemberton decided to combine the Vin Mariani with kola nut powder, a fairly horrible caffeine-containing substance in the hopes of enhancing its medicinal effects. He sold it as ‘Pemberton’s French Wine Coca’, a treatment for headaches, nerves, nausea, addiction, constipation, asthma and even impotence.

In 1886, the prohibition law was passed in Atlanta, making it illegal to sell substances containing alcohol. Unperturbed, Pemberton removed the wine from the recipe, leaving the tonic very bitter. He combined sugar syrup with the formula, but this created a foul-tasting murky-brown medicine. Realising he would need to add other things to his Coca-Cola to make the flavour bearable, Pemberton included vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and the citric acid that is probably responsible for making cola excellent for getting blood stains out of things. He softened the colour with caramel dye. Over the years, he continued to poke about with the recipe that would become a legendary secret.

Perhaps one reason for this secrecy was the denial that it had ever contained cocaine. The Coca-Cola company famously stated that the name was ‘meaningless but fanciful’ and denied that their product had ever contained any amount of cocaine. However, historians believe that Coca-Cola contained cocaine until 1929, fifteen years after it was made illegal, although only in trace amounts. Until this point, research had not fully optimised the method for extracting all the psychoactive chemicals from the coca leaves; thus, if coca leaves were used (and they were), traces of cocaine would have been present, even if chemists had done their best to remove them (which early on, they probably didn’t, and later on, they probably did). Could accidental cocaine content be the secret behind Coca-Cola’s early success?

The real turning point in Pemberton’s commercial triumph was in turning away from medicines altogether. Medicines started being taxed in 1898, and Coca-Cola fought a long court battle to become a soft drink and soft drink only. Marketing cola as a drink had started much earlier, when the flavour was tested on customers by serving it at drug stores through a carbonated water fountain. Some believe that fizzy water was first added by accident, instead of plain water during the syrup preparation, whilst other sources are adamant that cola was always intended as a carbonated beverage. One thing is certain: Pemberton, with the help of others including Willis Venable, shoved a lot of different things in his tonic recipe – and fizz was the formula that worked.

Was it the slip of a hand that made Coca-Cola? Or the accident of unlucky laws that perturbed the formula? One thing remains true: only its high kola bean caffeine content remains to resemble the original tincture, and it’s a soft drink, not a drug. Although caffeine has never really been considered medicine, it expands blood vessels, increasing blood flow, heart rate and respiration, as well as acting as a mood elevator. Recent research has discovered that, perhaps because of these properties, caffeine can boost the effects of other medicines, and it is now routinely sold with ibuprofen. So maybe, just occasionally, you should feed your babies Pemberton’s coca after all…

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