Cultural history

The Real Thing

That was then (1886)

During the American Civil War, John Stith Pemberton (July 8, 1831 – August 16, 1888) served in the Confederate Army in his native state of Georgia. In the Battle of Columbus on April 16, 1865 (regarded by some to be the last battle of the civil war), Lieutenant Colonel Pemberton was wounded in the chest by a saber. Like many wounded Civil War combatants, Pemberton sought relief from the pain of his wound by taking morphine, to which he became addicted. Before the war, Pemberton had received his license at the age of nineteen to practice pharmacy, a profession to which he returned after the war. In 1866 he began experimenting with painkillers that were not based on opiates. His experiments eventually led to making wines from coca leaves. Eventually, he found an effective combination of kola nuts, the nut of an African evergreen tree that is rich in caffeine, and damiana, a shrub used to produce an extract commonly used in patent medicines designed to reduce anxiety. This formula, which was added to a base of alcohol mixed with cocaine, was used to make a product called Pemberton’s French Wine Cola, which was marketed as a panacea, a medicine that would cure whatever ailments one might have, especially depression and reduced libido. Pemberton advertised the product as being especially suitable for “high-strung Southern women.”

In 1885, the city of Atlanta enacted legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol. In the face of this prohibition, Pemberton had to devise a new product that was free of alcohol. The new product was a syrup base combined with carbonated water. The new beverage was non-alcoholic, but the coca extract and the kola nut extract remained. The new product was therefore named Coca-Cola. Pemberton realized the new product had a potential to be used not only for medicinal purposes but also as a social beverage, which was advertised as a powerful brain tonic and as a delicious, invigorating, refreshing and joyful beverage. As Pemberton’s addiction to morphine became increasingly expensive, his need for funding to support his habit led him to sell all rights to the patent for Coca-Cola just two years after the first batch was brewed on March 29, 1886. Not long after selling the patent to the beverage that would soon become a household name, John Pemberton, still addicted to morphine, died of stomach cancer. In the 1890s, when cocaine use was very widespread in the United States and came to be seen as a social ill, the coca extract was removed from the formula, and the Coca-Cola company began making the claim that the name of the product was simply a catchy alliteration that had no reference to any of the beverage’s ingredients.

Coca-Cola was invented just a few months after another beverage invented by a pharmacist. On December 1, 1885 a pharmacist in Waco, Texas named Charles Alderton began selling a product made of fruit syrups and carbonated water that he called Dr. Pepper. The reasons that name was chosen are now unknown; absence of certainty has given rise to much speculation. Dr Pepper was introduced to the wider American public at the The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904 and has been a nationally popular beverage ever since. At that same exposition, ice cream cones, hamburgers, hot dogs, peanut butter, iced tea, cotton candy, and Puffed Wheat breakfast cereal also joined Coca-Cola as staples of the twentieth century American diet.

A third popular beverage invented by a pharmacist was a soda fountain drink called Brad’s drink, named after its inventor, Caleb Bradham of New Bern, North Carolina. It also contained kola nuts, along with several spices. Brad’s drink, invented in 1893, was eventually renamed Pep Cola after Bradham purchased the name from a competitor that had gone broke. In 1903 the product was renamed Pepsi Cola.

This is now

The Coca-Cola company claims that its products are sold in more than 200 countries and that 19,000,000,000 servings of their beverages are consumed per day. According to their 2016 annual report to investors, this was enough to net the Coca-Cola company $41,900,000,000 in sales revenue in 2016, a 5% decline from sales in 2015. The decline in sales was attributed to a worldwide trend away from soft drinks that has affected sales for all soft-drink manufacturers. According to a Coca-Cola website, the main in ingredients in Coca-Cola Classic are now carbonated water, sugar (about 35 grams or seven teaspoons per 330mL or 11 fl. oz. serving), caramel coloring, phosphoric acid, caffeine and a carefully guarded secret formula of “natural flavors.”

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, more than 50% of Americans consume at least one sugary soft drink per day. One typical serving of soft drink, 12 fl. oz. or 355 mL, contains 150% the maximum amount of added sugar considered by the American Heart Institute healthy for women and 100% of the added sugar considered healthy for men. So it turns out that much of the over-consumption of added sugars by Americans in 2017 and the resulting obesity and other compromises to good health stems from the inventions of three 19th century pharmacists.

Author: Dayamati Richard Hayes

Jemez Springs, NM, USA

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