Did Coca-Cola Ever Contain Cocaine?

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Close-up of ice cubes in bubbly cola.

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Scientific research is constantly discovering new things about drugs, such as the health benefits and risks of using (or misusing) them. Sometimes, these discoveries lead to changes in the way a drug is used. 

For example, did you know that the original recipe for Coca-Cola contained cocaine?

Coca-Cola’s history has been well-documented. The drink was invented in 1885 by John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia, who made 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” comes from the kola nut (which contains caffeine, another stimulant).

When Coca-Cola was invented, cocaine was legal and a common ingredient in medicines. People thought it was safe to use in small amounts.

Coca-Cola as medicine?
Pemberton described the drink as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage,” and advertised it as a “patent medicine.” He claimed it cured headaches, upset stomach, and fatigue. 

Patent medicines were combinations of so-called “exotic” ingredients and drug compounds that—according to the people who made them—cured a wide range of ailments. But they often contained ingredients we now know can be addictive, including cocaine and opium, as well as toxic elements like mercury and lead. 

In the 19th century, patent medicines weren’t regulated like medications are today. Anyone could claim their product had health benefits without having to prove its effectiveness—or reveal its risks. 

As early as 1891, some Americans spoke out against including addictive ingredients in patent medicines. The makers revamped the medicines’ formulas, and their health claims, as a result.

Taking the “coke” out
The amount of cocaine in Coca-Cola was reduced over time, and finally eliminated from the drink by 1929. This was during the Prohibition Era in the United States, when alcohol was illegal. Coke soon became popular as a “soft” drink, an alternative to hard alcohol. 

Learn more: What does cocaine do to your body and brain?

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