Coca-Cola's Scandalous Past

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Coca Cola Bottle

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Did you hear the one about cocaine being found in the recipe for Coca-Cola? Well, it’s true.

Coca-Cola was invented in 1885 by John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia, who concocted the original formula in his backyard. Pemberton’s recipe contained cocaine—in the form of an extract of the coca leaf, which inspired the “Coca” part of the beverage’s name. The “Cola” in the name comes from the kola nut, which contains caffeine, another stimulant.

At the time of Coca-Cola’s invention, cocaine was legal and a common ingredient in medicines. It was thought not to be harmful in small doses.

Medicinal Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola has always kept its formula a strict secret, but we know a few things about its origins.

Pemberton advertised it as a patent medicine, claiming that it cured headaches, upset stomach, and fatigue. “Patent medicines” were concoctions of exotic ingredients and drug compounds that allegedly cured a wide range of ailments. They often contained ingredients now recognized as addictive substances, including opium and cocaine, as well as deadly elements like mercury and lead.

In the 19th century, patent medicines were not regulated like medications are today. Anyone could claim health benefits without needing to prove treatment effectiveness—or reveal dangers. As early as 1891, some Americans spoke out against the inclusion of addictive ingredients like opium and cocaine. The makers of patent medicines revamped their formulas and health claims as a result.

Taking the “Coke” out of Coca-Cola

Asa Candler—also a pharmacist from Atlanta—purchased Coca-Cola from Pemberton and created the Coca-Cola Company in 1892. When Candler began advertising Coke as a beverage, making it available at lunch counters across America, the drink still contained a trace of cocaine.

Obviously, the Coca-Cola you buy today does not contain cocaine—but it remained an ingredient well into the 1900s. But by 1929, with public pressure and Prohibition against alcohol in full force, the company was forced to remove all traces of cocaine. Coke soon became popular as a “soft drink,” an alternative to hard alcohol.

What does cocaine do to your body? Take a quiz to find out.

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