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Coca-Cola does not contain cocaine anymore, but there still is a connection to the production of the drug

Posted March 15, 2019

Coca-Cola is one of the world‘s favourite drinks. It is also a huge success story, which took over the world. There aren‘t many places where you wouldn‘t be able to buy a bottle of the brown fizzy goodness – almost everyone gets to enjoy it. But did you know Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine? While it doesn‘t anymore, links between Coca-Cola and cocaine are still there.

Coca-Cola does not contain any cocaine anymore, but some connections to cocaine production are still there. Image credit: Wikimedia

Originally Coca-Cola contained real coca leafs – you know, the ones full of cocaine. But you have to understand that back in the day cocaine was considered to be a medicine rather than a harmful drug. Understanding of the harms of various substances was not as deep as it is now.

The inventor of Coca-Cola John Stith Pemberton wrote that each gallon of syrup calls for five ounces of coca leaves. Such concentration is not big, but it is noticeable. The recipe changed over the years – Coca-Cola once contained an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. However, from 1904 Coca-Cola does not contain any fresh coca leafs.

Having cocaine in your soft drinks is not great. However, coca flavour was strongly associated with Coca-Cola. From 1904 they started using spent coca leafs, which do not contain any noticeable amount of cocaine. In fact, they are “spent” because cocaine is extracted. This practice did not change – Coca-Cola of today is still made with coca leaf extract, which is supplied by the Stepan Company plant in Maywood, New Jersey. Stepan Company is the only business in US that has a licence to import and process the coca plant. Typically it is imported from Peru and sometimes Bolivia. While coca extract is used for flavour, it is only one of the products of the Stepan Company. Among the others there is cocaine.

Stepan Company imports coca leafs, then extracts cocaine and makes flavouring agent from the spent leafs. The process is really not that complex, but it is very well regulated due to the sensitive nature of the drug culture. But what happens with that cocaine? Well, it ends up in hospitals.

Extracted cocaine is sold to Mallinckrodt in St. Louis, Missouri. It is the only company in the United States licensed to purify cocaine for medicinal use. Although it is definitely not common anymore, cocaine is still sometimes used for nasal and lacrimal duct surgery, because it is a good local numbing agent. Swabs of cocaine solution are just rubbed on the area that needs cauterization or a different procedure done that would cause pain. However, cocaine use in the medical field declined over the years significantly. There are many better synthetic alternatives that do not have the same negative side effects.

It is interesting to think what would happen if cocaine was not used in medical field at all. It is likely that extraction of cocaine in US would become completely illegal and Coca-Cola would lose its main flavouring agent. However, nowadays the same flavour can be approximated using other materials as well, which is probably already done in foreign Coca-Cola factories.

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