Is it the real thing? Again, Coke says no

Updated: 2011-03-13 07:57

By Robbie Brown and Kim Severson (New York Times)

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Is it the real thing? Again, Coke says no

ATLANTA - Over the years, the public radio show "This American Life" has done some ambitious work. It was the first media outlet in the United States to broadcast lengthy interviews with Guantanamo Bay prisoners. It sent reporters to Iraq for a month. And it exposed the misdeeds of a hedge fund.

So what other topic could be so weighty, so captivating that it would cause the radio show's Web site to crash under a stampede of visitors?

A soft-drink recipe.

The host, Ira Glass, revealed on a recent show what he claimed was the original formula for Coca-Cola. He found it buried in a little-noticed article in the archives of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The recipe spread across the Internet, republished everywhere from CNN to Al Jazeera. A television show in Australia made its own Coke on air.

"It's sobering," Mr. Glass said. "We've done a lot of serious reporting on many serious things. But nothing that got the attention that we got from taking on a soft drink."

Coke, as it always does, insists the recipe is inaccurate. The real formula, it says, remains in a bank vault in Atlanta.

People have long been excited by the promise of cracking the culinary code of their favorite foods.

Companies, too, have long seized on the power of culinary secrets. KFC's famous "11 herbs and spices" and the "secret sauce" at McDonald's have helped make the companies billions.

The allure makes some loyal customers even more devoted. Not that long ago, cooks got so obsessed with creating the Twinkie snack cake at home that Williams-Sonoma, the houseware retailer, began selling the molds. Todd Wilbur, a former reporter, has built an empire on selling top-secret recipes in books and on his Web site.

What's notable is that some people now want to know secret corporate recipes with the passion others reserve for heirloom family recipes, said Laura Shapiro, a food historian.

When food made in factories became part of the diet at the turn of the last century, it was marketed as clean, pure and close to homemade.

Then, things changed. Marketers exploited the convenience, unique tastes and secret formulas that could come only from a corporate test kitchen. "People think of packaged food as notably elusive," she said. "Like how does that little blob of cream get inside the Hostess cupcake?"

But no company has a history of secrecy quite like Coke, which claims that only a handful of executives know how to make the soda flavoring it calls "Merchandise 7x."

In 1960, E.J. Kahn Jr. listed many of the original ingredients for Coke in his book "The Big Drink."

Then came the 1979 article in the Atlanta newspaper that "This American Life" rediscovered. And in the 1990s, Mark Pendergrast, a historian, found a recipe in the company's own archives, written by the beverage's inventor.

But in all of these cases, Coca-Cola denied their authenticity.

The company does not file trademark lawsuits against imitators because it would have to reveal the formula in court.

And even though people love learning secrets, they love having secrets. As long as Coke denies the imitations, many drinkers will continue to believe there is only one Real Thing.

Phil Mooney, Coke's archivist, says other recipes only make Coke taste better by comparison. "They'll make this recipe, and then they'll come crawling back to Coke," he told Mr. Glass: "Real Coke will have never tasted so good."

The New York Times


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