Has Coca Cola's Top-Secret Recipe Been Leaked? Not Really

Coca-Cola bottles
Coca-Cola bottles

Coke (KO) is the real thing, at least as far as American consumers are concerned. A fixture on the cultural scene almost since its 1886 introduction, the brown, caffeinated soda shows up in every corner store and most fast food restaurants, on signs and movies and magazines. Marketing students study the "New Coke" debacle and the "Cola Wars" strategy, while music fans note that one of its commercial jingles became a hit single and historians credit it with the creation of the modern day Santa Claus.

As I wrote almost a year ago, Coke's proprietary blend of oils and extracts is among the 10 most highly valued trade secrets, and the company goes to incredible lengths to protect it from competitors. Not surprisingly, when NPR's This American Life program released a recipe for the drink earlier this week, it quickly captured the attention of the chattering class. "'This American Life' bursts Coca-Cola's bubble" The Washington Post's Katie Rogers breathlessly declared, while The Daily Mail asked "Is This the Real Thing?" ABC, CBS, The LA Times, and Time magazine all jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting that This American Life had blown the lid off of Coke's deepest darkest secret.

It's easy to see why the news media jumped on the story. The secret recipe is part of Coke's cachet and -- much like Colonel Sanders' blend of 11 herbs and spices -- the security precautions surrounding it are widely advertised. For example, while a written copy is kept in a vault at Atlanta's SunTrust bank, only two people supposedly know the recipe at any given time. According to the company's ads, these two men are allegedly barred from taking the same airplane, lest they crash and burn, taking Coke's fortunes down with them.

Hard-to-Get Ingredients

The tale of the mystery recipe men is probably exaggerated, but another piece of Coke lore is strongly based in fact: surprisingly, Coke has never patented its recipe. To do so, Coke would have had to disclose its recipe and, given that patents expire after 20 years, the recipe would eventually become publicly available, leaving the company vulnerable to competitors. For similar reasons, Coke pulled out of India in 1977, when it became clear that sending the delicious sugared soda to the subcontinent would require that the company disclose its secret formula.

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So what about This American Life's discovery? Well, according to host Ira Glass, the show's recipe comes from a recipe book that belonged to Coke's founder, John Pemberton, and its mixture of orange oil, lemon oil, neroli oil, nutmeg oil, cinnamon oil, coriander oil and alcohol provides the flavor base for a cola beverage. However, to actually make cola, one needs a few extra ingredients, including lime juice, vanilla, caffeine and coca leaves. The last ingredient is particularly hard to get: as the basis for cocaine, coca is heavily regulated, and Coke's supplier -- Stepan Co. (SCL) -- is extremely careful about who gets their hands on the leaves.

Even so, Glass and company managed to get hold of some de-cocainized coca leaves and, with the help of the people at Jones' Sodas, they produced a small batch of Coke that had a medicinal note and tasted like "Froot Loops" or "orange flavored baby aspirin." While disappointed, Glass noted that the "lime and baby aspirin flavored mess" may actually have approximated the original taste of Coke, a flavor that has since been altered by various industrial processes.

On the show, a later, toned-down recipe got closer to the classic Coke flavor. Then again, as one of the experimenters noted, the basic cola recipe is generally well known. In his 2000 book on Coke, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, Mark Pendergrast offers a formula that is remarkably similar to the one Glass and company used. For that matter, Joseph Merory's 1968 tome Food Flavorings: Composition, Manufacture and Use also offered a cola recipe that hews closely to NPR's.

Not Even Pepsi Wanted It

Even if This American Life's recipe managed to capture the precise flavor of the soda, it's unlikely that anybody would want to steal it. After all, in 2006, Coke's greatest competitor turned down an opportunity to get its hands on the secret formula. When disgruntled Coke employee Joya Williams approached Pepsi (PEP) with the recipe, the voice of a new generation quickly alerted Coke, which then called the FBI.

Given Pepsi's ambivalence about the Coke recipe, it seems like Coke's real secret may not be a blend of oils and extracts, but rather a multi-decade marketing campaign that has somehow transformed a common cola recipe into one of the most well-known and beloved flavors on the planet. After all, recipes are all well and good, but adoration? Well, that's the real thing.