The Cultural And Medicinal History Of Coca-Cola (Hint: It Does Actually Involve Cocaine)
How the world’s most popular — not-so-healthy — fizzy drink began on a serious quest to improve people’s health…
Coke-Cola. One of the most renowned and recognized beverages (and brands) in the entire world.
In fact, consider some of the following facts about Coke:
- Coke owns 42.8% of the total market share for carbonated drinks in the US
- Globally, the average person consumes a Coke product every 4 days
- 94% of the world’s population can identify the Coke-Cola logo
- Coke-Cola spends more on advertizing than Apple and Microsoft combined
- Each year Americans ingest around 10.8lbs of sugar from Coke-Cola, alone
I mean, the Coke product marketing team sure seem to know something we don’t — that or they’re filling their bottles up with cocaine…
The Medicinal Use Of Coca Leaves
The coca bush is a rather unique plant that can be found growing indigenously throughout the continent of South America. The thing that sets the coca bush apart from other native forest flora is the presence of a substance known as cocaine hydrochloride — aka cocaine.
For centuries, whole coca leaves have been used by people living within the Andes and Amazon regions for to their ability to fight hunger and fatigue, remedy altitude sickness, and relieve pain.
For over 5000 years, coca leaves have made a vital nutritional contribution to the dietary needs of indigenous cultures, especially where diets are low in calcium and other vitamins.
“One hundred grams of Bolivian coca leaves contain more calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin B2, and vitamin E than are found in the U.S. recommended daily dietary allowance.”
— Plants, People, and Culture by Michael Balick and Paul Cox
In a clinical setting, even the alkaloid derivative that results from the chemical treatment of coca leaves (cocaine) is often used as a modern medicine in the treatment of eye disorders and some types of cancer.
This, however, is not how American pharmacist, John Stith Pemberton, chose to use his cocaine.
More widely recognized for its highly addictive nature as a powerful stimulant and Class A drug, cocaine contributes to a excited, energetic, and sometimes agitated state in its users — and is widely used recreationally as a result.
John Stith Pemberton was a veteran, and struggled with a serious morphine addiction in the years following the American Civil War, as a result. In an effort to relieve himself and his comrades of their drug afflictions, he began experimenting with natural alternatives.
Coca leaves are what he happened to stumble upon; the plant that would soon lead him to the creation of the multi-billion dollar soft drink giant, Coke
How Coca Became Coke
Further to acting as a replacement stimulant for veterans addicted to morphine, Coke-Cola was originally intended to be enjoyed by all as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage.”
But when Pemberton first founded the company, in 1886, he could never have quite anticipated the degree of success he had stumbled upon.
During the 1980s, the Stepan Company of Maywood, New Jersey, was said to have imported somewhere between 56 and 588 metric tons of coca leaf per year for ingredient use in the widely coveted drink.
To this day, an estimated 100 metric tons of coca leaves are imported from Peru annually, but their application differs slightly from what it was back then.
The cocaine-containing extract that Stepan removes is now sold to Mallinckrodt, Inc., which purifies it into cocaine hydrochloride for use in the pharmaceutical industry as a local anesthetic.
The leaf extract (without the cocaine), however, is still included in the current Coke-Cola recipe under the heading of “natural flavours,” making this a great talking point for any Coke-fueled conversation.
In addition to cocaine, Coke-Cola used to contain caffeine derived from African cola nuts — but this plant responsible for giving Coke-Cola the latter half of it’s namesake has since been replaced with artificial flavorings and alternative sources of caffeine.
…And now you know.
Cola leaves and coca nuts, mixed with dark sugary syrup, are what made The modern Coke-Cola Company the global enterprise that it is today.
A Note On Cultural Context
For the vast majority of history in the West, we have ignored the original traditional and cultural contexts for many of the plants we know about today.
More often than not, this has lead to a significant demonization and false illustration of plant medicines, such as coca leaves.
Plants that once were the focus of sacred rites now produce compounds irreverently used as recreational substances, their usefulness being reduced to the shallow level of understanding and due process we have given them in the West.
For example, in the 1890’s, a German psychiatrist named Emil Kraepelin equated the ancient practice of the indigenous peoples of the Andes chewing coca leaves with the abuse of cocaine, suggesting that the consequences of both were equally tragic and in need of prevention/intervention.
The story of coca, alongside the history of Coke, is one of the most pronounced examples of the denigration of psychoactive plants that are so important to traditional cultures.
My purpose in writing this article is to draw attention to the lack of adequate ethnobotanical understanding of so many of the plants and medicines we interact with on a daily basis. I maintain that this knowledge will always been important — nay — essential, to know.
This article is paraphrased from an excerpt found in the book Plants, People and Culture by acclaimed ethnobotanists, Dr. Michael J. Balick, and Dr. Paul Alan Cox. Their newest edition is out now; a book I highly recommend for all botanists, anthropologists, and herbal-remedy hobbyists alike :)
Alexandra Walker-Jones — October 2021