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Urban Legends: Coca-Cola's Top-Secret Recipe

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An attempt to get Coke to spill.

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Only 2 people in the world know the secret formula behind Coca-Cola (KO) -- and each only knows half the recipe. At least, that's what a recent Coke commercial claims. The ad, of course, is repeating a rumor that's been making the rounds for decades.

But could this be true? Could the secret behind a $115 billion dollar business boil down to a few ingredients known to only 2 people?

I called Coke's customer relations hotline to find out. I got through to an exceptionally pleasant woman with a thick Southern drawl whose initial response to my question was a bout of heavy laughter. "Oh dear," she said.

Then the canned response:

"As much as I would like to answer this specific inquiry, I am not able to comment on matters relating to the formula, which is one of our most valuable assets."

Foiled!

Well, if Coca-Cola refuses to address the rumor directly, then we'll have to use a little deductive reasoning.

Common sense tells us that this rumor must be false. After all, would investors, employees and board members of Coca-Cola really feel secure if the fate of their company rested on two mortal souls whose very existence could turn on a dime? Or what about all of the factory workers who actually manufacturer the delicious syrup -- wouldn't they know? Not to mention all those rabbis who, with Talmudic precision, scrutinize the ingredients to determine whether or not the beverage is Kosher.
Coca-Cola


In fact, plenty of Coke scholars claim that the "secret formula" has already been revealed. Apparently, John S. Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola, left the recipe on a sheet of paper that was found after his death (you can Google it). Another version of the recipe can be found in the book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola.

Perhaps the most interesting appearance of the Coke formula comes from the 1916 court case U.S. v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola. Under the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, the government got the power to inspect food for poisonous additives.

Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola raised the ire of federal investigators when it was revealed that the beverage contained caffeine-then thought to be a dangerous drug that one government witness claimed caused "wild nocturnal freaks, violations of college rules and female proprieties, and even immoralities" among women. In the court's decision (to send the case back to the lower courts), the "secret formula" is revealed in all its glory.

So, Coke's "secret formula" is little more than a marketing scheme. Right?

Maybe. In 2006, three Coke employees were caught trying to sell trade secrets to Pepsi (PEP). Apparently, they thought Coke's secrets were worth something. Instead of raking in millions, the thieves were arrested when Pepsi turned them in.

"We were just doing whatever any responsible company would do," Pepsi spokesman Dave DeCecco said. "Despite the fierce competition in this industry, it should also be fair."

But before letting a feeling of good will wash over you, consider that Coke's formula is pretty much meaningless to Pepsi, anyway.

According to New York Times Freakconomist Steven D. Levitt, if Pepsi published Coke's formula it "would be a lot like what happens to prescription drugs when they go off patent and generic drug companies come in. The impact would be that the price of real Coke would fall a lot…This would clearly be terrible for Coke. It would probably also be bad for Pepsi. With Coke now much cheaper, people would switch from Pepsi to Coke. Pepsi profits would likely fall."

Coca-Cola
Just for kicks, I thought I'd try calling Coke once more to share Levitt's economic argument with the company. After all, if I could persuade them that the formula really wasn't that important, maybe they'd relent.

I got through to a pleasant-enough-sounding Southern gentleman and made my case.

Without missing a beat, the man said:

"As much as I would like to answer this specific inquiry, I am not able to comment on matters relating to the formula, which is one of our most valuable assets."

Having hit an impenetrable wall, I explained that I needed some sort of formula -- anything -- to appease my editors before submitting my story. So we cordially agreed that it was true that E=MC2, and I called it a day.

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