Coca-Cola is undoubtedly one of the most popular drinks of our time, boasting an average consumption of 1.9 billion servings per day. As of 2020, it controls upwards of 46% of shares of the global soft drink market, and it is estimated that 10,000 Coca-Cola drinks are consumed across the world per second. However, what I find most fascinating about this hugely popular drink is its colourful history. To understand where Coca-Cola comes from, we must first learn about the history behind a Class A drug: cocaine

Cocaine is a stimulant – a drug that can increase brain activity – derived from the leaves of a plant indigenous to Central and Southern America: coca. Although today, cocaine is an illegal drug that is extensively abused, native South Americans have been chewing and brewing coca leaves since ancient times much the same way modern society consumes coffee; to give our brains and bodies a zap of energy. Ingesting a drug orally is very different from smoking/snorting the purified psychoactive compound, meaning native South Americans chewing coca leaves were highly unlikely to have been addicted the way cocaine users tend to be today. Instead, it was used as an anesthetic, to protect from the cold, to suppress hunger, and to treat injuries.

It wasn’t until the Spanish conquered much of South America that the chemical compound we now call cocaine wa​​s finally extracted from coca plants. Although first banned by the conquistadors due to the Catholic Church not approving of coca, it was quickly allowed back into society when the Spanish realized that the enslaved indigenous people they had working in their gold and silver mines were much less productive without it. Despite many attempts to bring the drug to Europe, it would take another 400 years or so to find success, as the psychoactive compound – cocaine hydrochloride – was successfully isolated only in 1855, by the German chemist Freidrich Gaedcke. It will also be interesting to any graduate students reading this that in 1860, a PhD student named Albert Niemann earned his PhD from the University of Goettingen by improving upon Gaedcke’s isolation process and describing it in great detail in his dissertation. Niemann was also the first person to call the compound “cocaine”. 

The credit for the popularization of cocaine in Europe, however, goes to a French chemist by the name of Angelo Mariani, who discovered that steeping coca leaves in Bordeaux wine extracted cocaine from it. He began to sell this concoction as “Vin Mariani” or coca wine, containing ~7 mg of cocaine per ounce of wine. Unsurprisingly, this drink was a huge hit, boasting many high profile patrons including Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant, Queen Victoria, as well as two different Popes. The drink was marketed as being able to improve energy and mood, and cure lung and stomach ailments. It is also thought to be the inspiration for the original version of Coca-Cola sold in 1885: John Pemberton’s drink, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. The only difference between Wine Coca and Vin Mariani was the inclusion of a caffeine source, the kola nut. Essentially, what we call Coca-Cola today used to be a mix of alcohol, cocaine, kola nut, corn syrup, and soda water. It is – once again – unsurprising that this drink took off the way it did. 

What is surprising though, is the fact that the first of the ingredients no longer seen in Coca-Cola today to be removed wasn’t cocaine; it was alcohol, due to prohibition laws being passed in the US. This, however, didn’t faze John Pemberton in the slightest. He simply removed the alcohol in his drink, kept everything else the same, and called it Coca-Cola instead of Wine Coca. It would take another 20 years before the cocaine in Coca-Cola was legislated out of it, and another 15 before the process was complete. That is to say, only since 1929 has Coca-Cola been completely free of both alcohol and cocaine. 

Today, Coca-Cola contains neither of the two ingredients responsible for its name. Although a non-cocaine containing coca leaf extract is still used, neither the cocaine nor the alcohol that once popularized this drink is present in it anymore. The kola nut has also been nixed as the source of Coca-Cola’s caffeine, essentially leaving it with only two of the ingredients once found in its ancestor: corn syrup and soda water. 

In conclusion, the trial and error that comes with the discovery and consumption of new psychoactive substances, particularly before laws surrounding food and drink safety were established, are a fascinating part of history. Moreover, these stories serve as a good reminder that legal status isn’t always a good indicator of safety. What is “normal” today may not remain that way forever!


Peer Editor: Emily Hand

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