Shh!! It’s a Secret!: Coca-Cola’s Recipe Revealed?

By Tierryicah Mitchell *

Coca Cola Top SecretCan it be?  Has Coca-Cola’s original recipe actually been uncovered after remaining secret for nearly 125 years?  On the February 11 broadcast of National Public Radio’s This American Life, the producers claimed to have discovered Coca-Cola’s heavily guarded secret formula.  “I am not kidding,” host Ira Glass stated at the beginning of the show.  “One of the most famously guarded trade secrets on the planet: I have it right here and I am going to read it to you.  I am going to read it to the world.”

According to Glass, one of the best-kept secrets had been hidden in plain view since February 18, 1979.  Glass spent the first half of the program explaining how he fortuitously came across the 32-year-old edition of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, which had a picture of a page from a book of handwritten pharmacists’ recipes.  The producers explained that the photo was able to fly under the radar of the masses because no one realized that it was actually a handwritten copy of John Pemberton’s original recipe.

The story of Coca-Cola’s creation is just as fascinating as the fact that the recipe has managed to remain secret for over 100 years.  Coca-Cola’s origins date back to a little before 1886 with John Stith Pemberton – a Civil War veteran with a morphine addiction.  In an attempt to overcome his addiction, Pemberton created Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which was composed of coca wine and kola nut.  However, after Atlanta’s passage of prohibition legislation, Pemberton recreated the drink without alcohol, called it Coca-Cola, and started selling it in pharmacies in Georgia.

Interesting enough, even as early as 1887, there was such a concern about the recipe being stolen and subsequently used by rivals that any and all paperwork containing the recipe was destroyed.  Ingredients could only be identified by sight and smell as all the labels were removed.

The secrecy surrounding the formula has continued throughout the years so much so that it is rumored that only two people at any given time know the formula. According to the Coke lore, these two people are forbidden to ever ride on the same airplane so as not to tempt fate to take Coca-Cola’s billion-dollar and arguably one of the world’s best-kept secrets to the grave in the unfortunate event of a plane crash.

While the truth of these two men is unknown, it is an actual fact that Coca-Cola does not have a patent on its recipe to ensure that its secret formula remains undisclosed.  A patent is a “limited right granted by the government to an inventor.” Thus, for the duration of that patent’s life, which is 20 years, the inventor has the sole right to sell, make, distribute, and license that product.  However, after that patent’s time has run, the formula becomes available to the public.  In 1893, Coca-Cola patented its original formula, but after the formula changed, it was not patented again.

Coca-Cola takes its secret recipe so seriously that it pulled out of the entire subcontinent of India to prevent the government’s required disclosure of its recipe.

Such extreme precautionary measures are part of what make Coca-Cola’s secret formula the epitome of what constitutes a trade secret.  A trade secret is a “piece of information whose value derives from it not being widely known.”  In general, a trade secret is something that is an actual secret, disclosed only to a limited amount of people, and something that the company is taking affirmative and extraordinary steps to keep secret.  While trade secrets are extremely valuable and generate a lot of publicity, there is virtually no legal protection if they are discovered unless the trade secret is misappropriated.  A trade secret is misappropriated  when one of two things occurs: (1) the information was improperly acquired or disclosed by a third-party, or (2) the third party discloses or uses a trade secret in breach of a duty of confidentiality imposed on him by the nature of his relationship with the owner of the trade secret and the owner of the trade secret is damaged by this improper acquisition, disclosure or use.

One notable example of attempted trade secret misappropriation occurred in 2006 when Pepsi (one of Coca-Cola’s biggest rivals) refused to accept secret documents allegedly including Coca-Cola’s secret recipe from one of Coca-Cola’s then-employees for millions of dollars.  In fact, Pepsi called Coca-Cola and informed them of this illegal offer.  The trader was then arrested and subsequently sentenced to eight years for conspiring to steal trade secrets.

In spite of Coca-cola’s nearly 125-year record of heavily guarding its formula, This American Life claims to have uncovered its secret recipe.  According to host Glass, the formula includes a mixture of orange oil, lemon oil, neroli oil, nutmeg oil, cinnamon oil, coriander oil and alcohol provides the flavor base for a cola beverage. In order to actually make cola, lime juice, vanilla, caffeine and coca leaves are necessary.

That’s right – to add to the already interesting and mysterious drink recipe, Coca-Cola is made with coca leaves, which are used to make cocaine.  Coca-Cola has a special arrangement with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which permits the importation of the leaves.  Since 1903, only one factory in the country is allowed to process and remove the cocaine from the coca leaf.

Given the heavy regulation of the coca leaf, it was not surprising that the batch of homemade Coca-Cola that the broadcast cooked up did not taste exactly like the real thing.  One taste tester said, “it tasted like weird soda trying to be Coke,” while Phil Mooney, Coke’s resident archivist described it as, “. . . sweeter and flatter than Coca-Cola.  It doesn’t have what we call the bite and the burn that Coca-Cola has.”

Coca-Cola Spokeswoman, Kerry Tressler, in rejecting that the broadcast had discovered the secret recipe stated, “many third parties have tried over time to crack our secret formula . . .[t]ry as they might, there’s only one thing.  And that was not it.”


*Tierryicah Mitchell is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law and is Secretary of the Black Law Student’s Association. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science in Political Science and History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Upon graduation in 2012, Ms. Mitchell plans to work for the federal government.