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Coca Cola's secret recipe revealed? (time.com)
157 points by joetek on Feb 15, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments

Interesting if it's true but ultimately Coke's strength lies in its worldwide brand[1] and distribution rather than having an unreproducible taste.

[1] Of course, being able to say only two people know how to mix the 7X flavoring ingredient is part of that brand.

Well, yes and no. Completely agreed on your basic point that their strength lies in their brand. However, in 1985 when Coke tried to reformulate the original formula and create "New Coke", one thing that it showed was that the taste of the drink was very linked with the brand.

Coke has always built their brand by associating the drink with happiness and good memories, and when that taste changed, people were upset because the Coke they grew up with no longer existed.

But I doubt anyone would be able to steal share away from Coke simply by copying their formula.

Read Dan Ariely's chapter 1 in Predictably Irrational. It is about relativity and the decoy effect. If you have a choice between A and B, then adding a third choice that looks like a defective version of A (the decoy) tends to nudge people to pick A over B.

As he explains it, choosing between two options in a vacuum is hard. You have to list pros and cons and weigh them carefully. We prefer to create yardsticks and say "better" and "worse". When you add the defective option you create a no-brainer yardstick in the mind of the chooser.

Doesn't this sound suspiciously like New Coke? I don't believe that the marketers didn't know this stuff, or that they were caught by surprise by what played out next.

I dunno. I was under the impression that New Coke was an unmitigated disaster. Coca-Cola Classic (then just "Coca-Cola") was already the dominant soda when it was introduced, and I don't think they picked up any market share in the months/years after the introduction of New Coke. But they did spend a ton of advertising money on the new soda which failed spectacularly.

New Coke was fantastic for Coca-Cola. Coke was on the decline while Pepsi was on the rise. New Coke was an attempt to reinvigorate the brand and get people drinking more Coke again. It succeeded accidentally, as people decided they liked Coke as it had been, leading to a resurgence of sales.

Snopes thinks New Coke was beneficial to Coke, though purely accidentally:


Actually reminds me more of trying to split the vote in politics (or maybe just The Wire)

But I get your point on the decoy. Although that's an awful big game to play with a few months worth of Coke sales if they knew it in advance.

I've read recently that it was cover for the switch from sucrose to high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener - when they switched "back" to HFCS, most people never noticed they hadn't actually switched back to the same thing. It's plausible, but as I'm not sure of the timing (I never looked at ingredients back then) I don't know if it's true.

Debunked by Snopes. Coca-Cola already had HFCS five years before New Coke. Here's the link, and also follow the "Cokelore" link at the top for the whole category.


Man, I shoulda known better than to lend credence to that. This is what comes of failing to examine one's assumptions.

Which was significantly a marketing issue - even the person running the anti-New Coke campaign preferred the new recipe in blind taste tests.


Gay Mullins, a Seattle retiree looking to start a public relations firm with $120,000 of borrowed money, formed the organization Old Cola Drinkers of America on May 28 to lobby Coca-Cola to either reintroduce the old formula or sell it to someone else. [....] In two informal blind taste tests, Mullins either failed to distinguish New Coke from old or expressed a preference for New Coke.

Err, sort of. The taste tests were flawed (and also the reason Pepsi repeatedly won blind taste tests over Coke around then as well).

New Coke was designed to be more Pepsi-like in that it was sweeter. In smaller quantities, people readily preferred the sweeter of the two drinks, whether it was New Coke vs Coke Classic or it was Pepsi vs Coke Classic. But what the taste tests overlooked was that people preferred Coke Classic to either New Coke or Pepsi in larger quantities (e.g. a 12oz can).

Without knowing the exact design of the test it's very difficult to be certain, but also from the linked Wikipedia article:

Goizueta publicly voiced a complaint many company executives had been making in private as they shared letters the company had received thanking them for the change in formula, that bashing it had become "chic" and that, as had happened in the focus groups, peer pressure was keeping those who liked it from speaking up in its favor as vociferously as its critics were against it. Donald Keough, the company's president and chief operating officer, reported overhearing this exchange at his country club outside Atlanta:

"Have you tried it?"


"Did you like it?"

"Yes, but I'll be damned if I'll let Coca-Cola know that."


Gladwell reports that other market researchers have criticized Coke for not realizing that much of its success as a brand came from what they call sensation transference, a phenomenon first described by marketer Louis Cheskin in the late 1940s: tasters unconsciously add their reactions to the drink's packaging into their assessment of the taste. For example, one of the researchers told Gladwell that his firm's research had found 7-Up drinkers offered a sample from a bottle with a distinctly more yellowish label believe the flavor to be more lemony, although it wasn't.


Coke considered but rejected gradually changing the drink's flavor incrementally, without announcing that they were doing so. Executives feared that the public would notice and exaggerate slight differences in taste. In 1998, Joel Dubow, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, tested this "flavor balance hypothesis" and argued that it was not true. He and fellow researcher Nancy Childs tested mixtures of classic Coke and Coca-Cola II and found that the gradual changes of taste were not noticed by a significant number of tasters. Coke, he said, would have succeeded had it chosen this strategy.

I'm not at all convinced the primary issue with New Coke was taste-based, from the available information.

I don't know how New Coke was, but I can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi any time. I could even tell you when you're giving me a mix between the two.

I prefer Coke Cola as I indeed drink larger quantities, but my wife prefers Pepsi. And I don't mind Pepsi, but when I tried Pepsi Blue, the taste was so awful it was nauseating, although I did like the commercial. And if they gradually migrated old Pepsi to Blue, I don't know if I would notice what's going on, but I would stop drinking it.

IMHO taste matters.

I never said it was taste based, but the taste (better or worse) was part of the issue. The primary issue was they were abandoning the brand they had spent 100 years building up. But that brand was linked to the original taste, and throwing out that taste was a bad idea. The issue was not that the taste was horrible, but that it was different.

I wouldn't be surprised if companies in India, Russia, etc., tried copying the formula

Yeah but have you noticed how generic brand cola doesn't taste nearly as good?

In terms of what it costs to produce, Coke may be the best value for your dollar. But there are definitely superior colas out there if you're willing to spend slightly more. They don't have Coke's distribution or brand and they don't "taste like childhood" though.

With this whole "childhood" thing: I'm glad my parents didn't let me drink too much of any sugary drink, when I was a kid.

That said I had a some compensation episodes later, e.g. when I first discovered Vanilla Coke in a winding 7-11 in Hong Kong - I remember this beverage to be almost overwhelmingly sweet.

> I first discovered Vanilla Coke in a winding 7-11 in Hong Kong - I remember this beverage to be almost overwhelmingly sweet

It is overwhelmingly sweet no doubt about it. I could not drink two sips of it and I am a Coca-Cola drinker.

Where?! I want some please!

The very best I have tasted is Fentimans


Try it! And report back with your opine.

Fentimans is superb. Their Curiosity Cola is amazing, and their tonic water when mixed with Hendricks makes for one hell of a Gin and Tonic!

Ooo... I've never had their tonic, but I have a fresh bottle of Hendrick's right here...

Boylan Cane Cola. It's available more widely than a lot of the other really good sodas.

I really like a lot of Boylan's products, but not their cola. On an intellectual level I can reason that it tastes very good, but it just doesn't taste like what I'm looking for when I'm in the mood for a cola.

I prefer Red Bull Cola, which has only natural ingredients. It tastes incredible.

I really like the taste of red bull, doesn't taste anything like it?

Also a fan, but it is a little on the expensive side.

Also gives you wings. That's a plus.

But the calorie count though! :(

http://www.premium-cola.de/ is my favourite. http://www.fritz-kola.de/ comes next, then afri cola.

In Germany you can get the local Afri Cola. Solid drink. (http://i.imgur.com/RSqwM.jpg)

Pepsi actually beats Coke in most taste tests.

edit: I know, Pepsi isn't a "generic brand cola", just saying, Coke isn't usually rated the best.

And this is usually explained by Pepsi being sweeter, so it seems to be more pleasant for the first few sips.

Or more completely: because Pepsi is sweeter, a small quantity of Pepsi tastes better. However, if you asked people to rate based on an entire can of cola, your results would change. Dunno about that, I'm a Pepsi man, because the first place I worked was a gas station that only stocked Pepsi, so it was the first caffeinated beverage I drank in quantity.

This is rather interesting. Growing up in the UK the only place I could ever find Pepsi was at a KFC. McDonalds and most restaurants all have Coke. My first drink of Pepsi was at my friends' house whose father only ever got fast food from Burger King (which was impossible to find in my area of the UK because they use lower quality beef) so drank Pepsi.

As an adult I've found the only relevant things for colas. Coke goes great with white rums and Pepsi goes great with spice rums. Beyond that I'll drink either whenever.

I've often had exactly the inverse experience on trips to northern CA: so many places, I ask for a Coke, and get told that they only have Pepsi. Mind you, in UK pubs these days, if you ask for a Coke, you'll probably get flat Pepsi out of a hose dispenser - flat on account of the violence of its expression.

I'm not a fan of Pepsi at all, in a similar way to how I don't like any of the diet colas - the sweetness is too much, and it being flat only hurts it further, removing some of the carbonic acid.

When I was growing up, asking for a Coke would result in the counter-question "What kind?" Coke was just the general name for any dark carbonated beverage that wasn't root beer. Although I still don't know why root beer was excluded. :-)

Interesting premise ...

Many years ago, back when I was working my way thru high school, my father was a shop manager at a manufacturing plant. One of the perks he had, was deciding what went in the drink cooler. He swore (all day and half the night) that the small bottles of Coke (8 oz or 6 oz) had a better flavor than the larger bottles of Coke did (which were either 12 oz or 16 oz). So, he made sure that there were always 2 rows stocked with the small bottles.

This is from the days when all the bottles were returnable.

I've heard this explanation before, but haven't seen any data from taste tests that include consuming a whole can. It's an interesting explanation, but doesn't seem backed up by data :/

All very well for Coke to say "If you did this, your results would change"... Where's the data?

I'm also firmly Pepsi, just prefer sugar.

This has been mentioned a few times in here and sounds interesting - sweeter on the first sips but people would NOT prefer the whole can. Please cite sources!!

I don't think Pepsi is a "generic" cola.

Pepsi is its own brand unto itself, and in fact turned down an offer of Coca-Cola trade secrets before[1].

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5152740.stm

I thought Diet Pepsi won all taste tests. No reference, just remember that.

I would recommend Ubuntu Cola (http://www.ubuntu-trading.com/our-fairtrade-cola) if it's available. It's all over the place in little Sweden, and quite tasty as well as being Fairtrade which is nice. Plus, the name is somewhat amusing if you also run Ubuntu Linux on your computers. :)

I listened to this show over the weekend (if you don't listen to TAL, you should start immediately), and as I recall it, they were pretty unambiguous about the fact that people who routinely drank Coca Cola were, by a large margin, able to tell real Coke from this recipe.

The spokesperson ("archivist") they found from Coca Cola implied that stories like this come up all the time.

I don't suppose they had any original recipe Coca-Cola to test it against? It's hardly surprising that it would taste different since modern coke uses a different recipe.

Yeah. Modern Coke doesn't taste like my soft-focus sunlit memories of being six and having a big glass bottle of the stuff while wandering around the cavernous warehouse of the Contemporary Arts Center, but now that I've switched to small-bottler colas that're actually made with cane sugar, I get that taste-triggered Proustian nostalgia flashback on a pretty regular basis.

I don't see anything about carbonation levels. Dissolved CO2 has a unique taste and the amount contributes directly to the taste of the finished product.

Coke could open source their cola tomorrow and nothing would change. I dont get this fascination with their secret recipe. Their strength is distribution and marketing of course. It would be the equivalent of Nike telling you how to make a shoe.

The fact that "the Coke formula is secret" is a marketing tool itself. I've seen a few ads along the line of "only two guys know the Coke formula and they each only know half." (Which I'm betting isn't true, since that makes Coke a bus factor of one.)

And you can bet that the guy driving in tankers from a orange-oil factory to the coco-cola HQ would have an inkling as to what one of the ingredients is.


Ah good point. Maybe they just pick people like you for truckers. :P

"driving a truck from the orange oil plant? must be sugar!"

Coke could open source their cola tomorrow and nothing would change.

It depends on what the recipe is. If they're extracting some ingredients from cow dung then I think it could hurt them.

> If they're extracting some ingredients from cow dung then I think it could hurt them.

Possibly, but people seem pretty resistent to these types of things. Red die being crushed up bugs. Everything in cigarettes. 90% of the ingredients in non-fresh foods. Pesticides on fresh foods. McDonalds....

Coke isn't exactly good for you and I think most people know that. And I think the "eww" factor would have to be pretty horrifying to make people stop drinking it.

The "secret recipe" is simply marketing. It gets them in the news every so often, and makes the public believe it can't be replicated by competitors.

IMHO Coke tastes horrible. Can't stand the stuff. Only Pepsi Max will do.

Your first sentence is clearly and obviously true, but that doesn't make the story any less newsworthy.

Pret a Manager (normally shortened to plain ol' "Pret") is a premium sandwich/coffee chain based in the UK. They have stores in Manhattan and other places too. I miss it desperately.

Pre-packaged sandwiches are normally considered a bit ghetto and nasty. Pret used to (maybe they still do... I dunno...) print the recipe for the sandwich you were eating on the side of the box so that you realised you were getting good quality ingredients and a fair amount of effort went in to what you were eating.

Seems as though Pret realised what you were buying was not so much the product itself, but the convenience.

I'm confused by your post because:

1. Are you USian or UKian (or neither)? Pre-packaged sandwiches have much greater acceptance in the UK. Heck, M&S sells them.

2. Don't pre-packaged sandwiches already have ingredients printed on them? If you're drawing a distinction between ingredients and recipe, how does one more than the other guarantee quality of ingredients?

1) Neither. But i've lived in both. From what I saw, Pret really upped the ante with the quality of their sandwiches, and others followed as best they could.

2) This picture answers it better than I tried to explain it:


Reminds me of OpenCola http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenCola_(drink)

Am I the only one or does anyone else hate the unnecessary popup ad on time.com?

"If you gave me $100 billion and said, 'Take away the soft-drink leadership of Coca-Cola in the world,' I'd give it back to you and say it can't be done." -- Warren Buffett

I'm not a chemist, but can't one just run Coca Cola through a mass spectrometer to determine the relative amounts of, say, the top 15 molecules (by their masses), then do some further sleuthing (e.g. X-ray diffraction studies of the component molecules) to determine what those 15 molecules are?

Seems like this would be about as informative as looking at the assembly code for Firefox.

Given the right amount of time looking at the assembly of firefox isn't an impossible way to find out what it is doing.

A good counter example is the assembly of old nes games. I have read through some of them and you can even find nice commented versions of the main games source like mario, mario3, super mario etc. Reading the source is really eye opening. Some features in the game are very hard coded and fundamental to the code base changing it would be extremely hard. Other times you find fantastically elegant code. If anyone is interested in a treat go read the level loading asm for smb1.

And if the browser industry were as big as the beverage industry, and if Firefox had the kind of advantage Coke has, I am sure people would be doing it.

Come to think of it, I probably could have chosen a better example, as Firefox is open source...

You forgot at least one "and":

...and if Firefox weren't open source. Why look at disassembled asm when you can download the C/C++ code?

If they used pure isolated ingredients then yes. But they don't - they use plant extracts which contain hundreds if not thousands of molecules.

Problem is, recombining.

Since you're not just using raw chemicals to produce the final product reproducing it is very expensive if this is the way that you're going about it.

The ingredients aren't a secret - they are published by the people that certify stuff as kosher for example, or by equivalents of FDA in some countries.

Of course the proportions and mixing might be secret - but really it's coke's brand and ubiquity that is their 'secret'.

Exactly. My dad is a chemist and he mentioned this to me: it's not hard to 'reverse engineer' the formula. You can iterate until the results of the spectrometer from the original coke and your invented formula are close enough.

Good luck with trying to sell and distribute at competing prices with The Coca Cola company (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coca_Cola_Company#Lobbying)

This recipe was published years ago in the book For God, Country and Coca-Cola by Mark Prendergast. He found it in the archives while researching the book. It is not the current recipe, as some changes have been made.

Its an excellent book too, with the history of the new coke fiasco and the early years.

I'm disturbed by the fact that the 7X flavor contains alcohol - there's a lot of people that can't drink something lik this for religious reasons... I wonder if it is real.

That alcohol probably isn't in the true 7X formula these days.

There is a trace amount of alcohol in Coke as a byproduct of the Corn-to-HFCS conversion. Because of this grain byproduct, Coke produces a Kosher version of Coke around the jewish holidays that uses cane or beet sugar (sucrose) instead of high-fructose corn syrup. I grab as much K-Coke as I can during the passover season and hoard it all year. It's good stuff.

If you just want the cane-sugar coke, I've seen Costco sell it (imported from Mexico, IIRC).

I've tried it too. Way too sweet.

Local bottlers will tweak the syrup/water ratio for the local tastes. I've been told it's sweeter in the south than the north. The Mexican mix is insanely heavy on the syrup.

I've tried Coke syrup straight. It'll make the muscles in your jaw convulse from the insane sugar hit.

I've tried it too. Way too sweet.

The key, for me, anyway, to Mexican Coke is to keep it at room temperature and serve it over ice. It's always cold enough, and the slight dilution from the melting ice makes it perfect.

Also, the Mexican mix isn't heavy on the syrup, it's heavy on cane sugar.

I'd like to believe that Coke doesn't mess around with the ratio of sweetener inside the syrup.

One huge advantage of living in Europe is that we get sodas with real sugar here. None of the HCFS crap. And yes Virginia, it does make a difference. Suger > HFCS.

Oh yeah. I travel to Europe every year or so and the colas there are great. Expensive, but worth it.

One of my biggest wishes is that Coke would bring the European formula of Orange Fanta to the USA. It's an excellent drink (and #2 in popularity to Coca-Cola from what I hear), but in the USA it's this thick syrupy supersweet undrinkable mess.

The article said that this was the original recipe, which the article also said contained alcohol. The article also said that as prohibition started, the alcohol was removed. So says the article.

2 oz of alcohol to 5 gallons of syrup, and syrup is diluted further.

That said, basically all liquid flavorings are alcohol solutions. The 1 oz vanilla probably adds as much alcohol as the 7X does. And I suspect that the Mormons and Muslims are okay with vanilla extract.

Also coca! This is the original recipe remember. So no probably not any alcohol in modern Coke.

But it IS in your vanilla extract etc.

It also contains Coca extract... This obviously isn't the modern day recipe.

But it is in the modern day recipe:

"To this day, Coca-Cola uses as an ingredient a cocaine-free coca leaf extract prepared at a Stepan Company plant in Maywood, New Jersey."


Actually it is. Just decocainized.

I like cooking and would love to make a coca cola duplicate but the flavor thats comes from the Coca extract could be a little hard to come by.

"They identified the Illinois-based Stepan Company as the importer and processor of the coca used in Coke. " http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/01/business/how-coca-cola-obt...

You should listen to the This American Life broadcast. Search Coca Tea on Amazon.

+1 Thanks man, definetly will. =)

A better news story linked on that page is how four loko is being recycled into ethanol, lol


I'm against ethanol (because of corn welfare for millionares) but it's still an eye opening story.

ps. What's up with Time trying to be "hip" to the Reddit/Digg crowd?

Wouldn't this be equivalent to somebody finding out Google's exact ranking weights from 2005 ?

The recipe has changed/been tweaked alot & the true strength of Google is now in its worldwide brand rather than its ranking algorithm.

Pick up a can of Coca Cola and you can already see the recipe is incomplete. In the EU it clearly lists E338 (Phosphoric Acid) as an ingredient, which is not shown in the recipe at Time.com.

Related: This American Life's server crashed today under the load driven by the story:


The only way I see this as being useful is to make your own cola that is less damn sweet. But for that there's open cola or whatever it is I guess.

That's pretty easy to do. There are numerous companies that make different flavored soda extracts that are just flavorings. You mix them with sugar and 4-5 gallons of water. To carbonate you can either use yeast in plastic bottles or hook it up to a CO2 tank.

I regularly make root beer this way and put it in my kegerator. I usually put in about half the sugar than what the extract calls for.

Why would you want to go digging through old documents for the recipe when you could use a chromatograph?

I always thought that cola had lavender as one of its ingredients..

We need some more secret sauce. Put this mayonnaise in the sun!

I'm a little upset it's not alien slug feces.

Mmmmm... Slurm

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