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The Weird (and Wired) Truth Behind What’s Really in Coca-Cola

Why Coca-Cola contracts with a chemical company to manufacture cocaine in New Jersey

Close-up of a Coca-Cola bottle with a red label, its logo, and the phrase “Original Taste.” Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An unassuming set of buildings in Maywood, New Jersey, less than 10 miles from Manhattan, holds a surprising secret: It’s what might arguably be called the cocaine capital of the United States. Here, a chemical company manufactures cocaine legally, with special permission from the U.S. government, all in the service of a familiar company: Coca-Cola.

The name Coca-Cola is so familiar that, according to Bart Elmore, the author of Citizen Coke, it’s the second most-recognized word in the world (“okay” is the first). But you might not realize that the two conjoined words that make up the brand actually mean something. In fact, they’re the names of two ingredients used in the secret recipe for the famous soda since the late 1800s: cola comes from kola, an African nut known for its caffeine content, and coca comes from the coca leaf — which, of course, is the plant source for the drug cocaine. In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley uncover Coca-Cola’s real secret formula, while exploring the lengths Coke has gone to in order to source its ingredients.

Coca leaf has been used in its native South America in medicinal, spiritual, and recreational contexts for centuries. When chewed or brewed into tea, the leaf has a mild stimulating effect, and has been used traditionally to treat stomach issues, suppress appetite, and relieve the physical effects of high altitudes. But, in the 1800s, cocaine — a powerful stimulant isolated and extracted from the coca leaf by the power of chemistry — became Europeans’ drug du jour. It found its way into medicine as well as the enthusiastic embrace of Sigmund Freud, it was written into the plot of Sherlock Holmes, and it was also added to an array of popular foods and drinks.

One of those drinks included Vin Mariani, a patent medicine made with red wine and cocaine that was a favorite of both Pope Leo XIII and President Ulysses S. Grant. It was this beverage that the Coca-Cola’s founder — a morphine-addicted, down-on-his-luck Civil War veteran named John Pemberton — decided to copy, creating Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. His only alteration to the recipe was the addition of kola nut, creating a trifecta of wine, cocaine, and caffeine that was even more potent than the original. No wonder the advertisements claimed there was “health and joy in every bottle.”

When Coca-Cola’s home city of Atlanta went dry in the 1880s, the red wine had to go. So Pemberton reformulated; he kept the coca and kola, but instead combined them with other flavors in a syrup that any soda fountain could add to carbonated water. The first iteration of Coca-Cola was born.

Through the late 1800s, Coca-Cola fretted about keeping a steady supply of coca leaves as demand grew in the West, where people were manufacturing coca lozenges, wines, and even coca cigarettes. The company didn’t own any of the farms in Peru where the leaves were growing, and so any other manufacturer could offer Peruvian farmers a better price and snatch up Coca-Cola’s supply. The company needed some way to block their competitors, and they found it in a surprising place.

By the early 20th century, cocaine’s popularity had stirred up a powerful opposition movement, which linked the drug with delinquency and madness — particularly in the South, where racist fears that the drug was leading Black users into crime led to the first American bans of the drug. Following suit, Coke’s then-president, a devout Southern Christian named Asa Candler, decided to make a change to the drink’s secret formula. He insisted on keeping the coca leaf, so that Coca-Cola still contained coca — but he switched to “decocainized” coca leaves, with all traces of the drug removed. The newly formulated ingredient would be combined with kola nut in a powder given the mysterious cover name “Merchandise #5.”

Coca-Cola might have taken the cocaine out of their drink, but the company still needed to source coca leaves, which became more and more challenging. By 1914, the American federal government had officially restricted cocaine to medicinal use. So, as the government began debating an official import ban, Coke sent its lobbyists into the fray, pushing for a special exemption. Their fingerprints are all over the Harrison Act of 1922, which banned the import of coca leaves, but included a section permitting the use of “de-cocainized coca leaves or preparations made therefrom, or to any other preparations of coca leaves that do not contain cocaine.” Only two companies were given special permits by the act to import those coca leaves for processing — one of which was Maywood Chemical Works, of Maywood, New Jersey, whose biggest customer was the Coca-Cola company.

This special loophole would carry over in every piece of anti-narcotics legislation that followed, including international agreements restricting the global trade in coca leaves. Over the ensuing decades, the company continued to demonstrate the lengths to which they would go to protect their supply, from supporting opposition to the traditional use of coca, to developing a secret coca farm of their own on Hawaiʻi.

According to The Atlantic, in the year 2003, Maywood Chemical Works — now owned by Stepan Company — imported more than 385,000 pounds of coca leaf for Coca-Cola, enough to make $200 million of cocaine, all of which legally had to be destroyed, likely by incineration.

Perhaps the strangest piece of the story, given the enormous effort Coca-Cola has made to maintain their coca supply, is that the coca leaf itself makes only the tiniest difference to the soda’s final flavor. The amount of decocainized leaves that Stepan supplies is minuscule; as former Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger wrote in 1951, it’s more likely that it “continues to be used merely to enable the Company to retain the word ‘Coca’ in the name which it has spent millions to advertise.”

Drug loopholes and cocaine bonfires aren’t the only deeply weird moments in the Coca-Cola story. Check out the latest episode of Gastropod, “Always Coca-Cola,” for the backstory on the iconic company’s real secret recipe for success.