“Coca”-Cola: the Drink with the Leaves

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Coca-Cola uses a non-narcotic coca extract in flavoring their classic drink. But how? Where does it come from? Legally, why are they allowed to do so? That’s a lot of mystery packed in to the “natural flavors” ingredient listing. The origins of the legalized coca trade can be traced to Peru.

Peruvian peasant farmers grow coca with express permission from their government. Once harvest arrives, bales of coca leaves are sold to Empresa Nacional de la Coca, a government owned corporation. Metric tons are exported to the US, but only through Illinois-based company Stepan (specifically their New Jersey laboratory).

Multiple products are then created in that lab. Cocaine extract is sent to a medical company called Mallinkrodt. There it is purified into cocaine hydrochloride U.S.P. which is used for local anaesthetic by ear, nose, and throat specialists. The used up leaves are sent en masse to the Coca-Cola manufacturing plant.

Before the partnership with Stepan, however, Coca-Cola had to proccess the leaves on their own. To remove any narvcotic effects, the ground leaves were mixed with sawdust and soaked in a solution of baking soda. A solvent (toluene) was then percolated through the nixture. The liquid was finally mixed with powdered kola nut and pasteurized before being used as flavoring.

Though it’s unsure coca actually brings much flavor, if any at all. Coca-Cola representative have even commented that it is more of an “enhancer,” which likes it to salt or the ever hated MSG. Why, then, go through the trouble of finding ways to keep coca in the drink? Because when cocaine was outlawed in 1929 Coca-Cola didn’t want to lose the rights to their name. With influence over changing markets, Coca-Cola has managed to remain the sole company, legally, selling coca products in the US.

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