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CocaErythroxylum coca
Cola (Kola) – Cola acuminata


There is a plant drink that defines our own times . . . our passion for consumerism, our addiction to marketing, a drink that stares us in the face every day, in every country – a truly global drink.

There are no prizes for guessing what it is because we all know what the answer must be … it is Coca-Cola.

The world of high-powered retail commerce originated in Britain but it was in the United States of America that it became an art form, literally, immortalised in the 1960s by pop artist Andy Warhol. One of Warhol’s most famous pieces, now in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, is his Green Coca-Cola Bottles of 1962 consisting of 112 empty green glass bottles of Coca Cola, lined up in 7 rows of 16 expressing eloquently the repetition of mind-numbing mass production. His work would be a landmark for the commercial artists that would follow in his steps.

In 1901 after a reign of nearly 64 years Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, died. At about this time the American economy overtook that of Britain as another change in the world order began. Resource-rich America, a colonially inward-looking country, was now about to open up and take on the world. This was to be an American century culminating in 1989, after the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin wall and eastern European communist countries and Soviet Union could not compete with the dynamism of American capitalism.

Globalisation that began with the Age of Discovery was now entrenched in communications, politics, and trade – the economic triumph of democratic free-market consumerism, multinational corporations, and rampant individualism that brought material comfort – but with a late-century growing awareness of its costs: climate change and the conversion of nature into a cultural landscape. Over the century 1800-1900 Britain had grown and flourished on the resources extracted from its colonial empire, its population recorded in the 1801 Census as 10.5 million which would become about 38 million by 1900. In spite of two world wars this magnitude of population growth would be echoed across the world as human numbers increased from 1.5 to 6 billion in a massive cultural acceleration and homogenisation.

such as the The plants

The Coca plant, Erythroxylum coca, is in the botanical family Erythroxylaceae, it is native to Southwest America where today it is grown as a commercial crop in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Coca has long played a part in traditional Andean cultures. Chewing a quid of leaves would release small quantities of the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine (concentrations 0.25-0.77%) which acts as both a stimulant and appetite depressant thus overcoming the need for food and sleep … very useful on long walks. Today the leaves are dried, powdered and mixed with lime to use as a masticatory. Though a source of the alkaloid cocaine which occurs naturally in the leaves the levels are low and the psychological effects mild. Cocaine itself was not extracted from Coca leaves until 1885 when it was used in Coca-Cola products but in 1929 all cocaine was removed. Commercial extraction of cocaine is straightforward.

The Cola (Kola) plant, Cola acuminata, is an evergreen tree in the botanical family Sterculiaceae . it is native to the tropical rainforests of West Africa. These trees produce Kola seeds, the ‘nuts’ that are rich in caffeine (about 2%) and, again, they were traditional stimulants when chewed by native Africans, and now used to flavor drinks. The genus is closely related to the South American genus Theobroma cocao, or Cocoa.

Fizzy water

Carbonated water has a long history starting with the observation of the bubbles that are formed as part of the process of fermentation. English chemist Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) had observed that the gas in these bubbles was heavier than air, it would extinguish aflame, and it could be persuaded to dissolve in water to produce a ‘sparkling’ fizzy drink – and he presented these findings to the Royal Society in 1772 and publishing a book on the subject. Even so itwould be a chemist from Manchester, Thomas Henry, who would make this a commercial proposition, selling carbonated water for its medicinal properties in the 1770s and, in the 1780s suggesting the water be enhanced with sugar and lemon juice to produce proto-lemonade.

By the 1790s the idea was being explored across Europe, some famous names including Nicholas Paul and Jacob Schweppe in Geneva who moved to Britain establishing competing companies whose products emphasised different aspects of the carbonation. One way of producing mineral waters was by using bicarbonate of soda and from this method come the expression ‘soda water’.

After 1800 there was less emphasis on the medicinal properties of mineral water and as its popularity gathered in America so did its American enhancements including a special dispenser or ‘soda fountain’ patented in 1809 .

From the 1830s American soda water was enhanced with a flavoured syrup additive.


Fizzy flavoured drinks were completely democratic, being enjoyed equally by all sectors of society. But just one of these fizzy drinks would stand out.

Coca-Cola & patent medicines, the magic formula

As usual the actual with origin stories, that of today’s Coco-Cola remains somewhat obscure. The official company account credits its discovery to John Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia who found the successful combination of ingredients while exploring the liquid as a possible cure for headache.

This was perhaps a generous interpretation of what happened since Pemberton was a seasoned concocter of patent medicines that were a source of revenue for those prepared to market assorted ointments, lotions, elixirs, and medicines as wonder cures and relief from all kinds of ailments. Many of these had some psychotropic content – as alcohol, caffeine, opium, or morphine. Following the Civil War of 1865 these cure-alls had proved extremely popular as clear from their advertising which was very sophisticated for its day and from which modern marketing has learned much – about slogans, logos, and ways of getting the message across. After an initial struggle with his products in 1884, like others working with patent medicines, he began experimenting with South American Coca leaves to create a product he called French wine Coca. This was very similar to Vin Mariana which had proved extremely popular in both Europe and the United States and was a creation of a Corsican Angelo Mariani who had made it from French wine that had been poured onto Coca leaves and stored for about six months.(S, p. 236) Pemberton’s idea was to add the extract of another wonder plant just hot on the market called Koka, this time from West Africa, whose nuts are rich in caffeine.The combination of these two plant products in patent medicines was quite common at this time.

Sales of French Wine Coca looked promising but as the temperance movement gathered support in the late 1880s Pemberton decided to refine his product by removing the alcohol, adding sugar to counter the bitterness of his plant additives, and converting it to be consumed as a medicinal soda drink.

The home of Coca-Cola is Atlanta, Georgia originating in 1886 as a medicine with cocaine and cola nut but no alcohol. The business was purchased in 1891 by Asa Candler who developed the familiar logo and perfected the mass advertisng. Carbonatede water was added to the different syrups sold from soda fountains in pharmacies. In 1903 with cocaine now related tyo addiction and crime the coca leaf continued to be used but without the cocaine then in 1899 the rights to ‘bottling’ were sold for $1 M as a safe and sanitized source of the drink and to distinguish the product a unique bottle design was patented. In 1931 the Santa with a red and white cloak and white beard was created as part of the Coco-Cola image now intimately associated with Christmas. Through WWII cigarettes, candy and Coca-Cola were provided to American troops and later advertising homed in on Coke as the ‘real thing’.

Sales began in 1886 under the name Coca-Cola, just as prohibition was taking hold in Atlanta, and the distinctive logo appeared in 1887. Ironically Pemberton died of stomach cancer in 1888.

The formula

The composition is 99.5% water and sucrose and 0.5% syrup concentrate with a secret formula that includes phosphoric acid, cinnamon, caramel, caffeine, lemon, nutmeg and essential oils.

By 1895 the popularity of the drink had rocketed and it was being sold in all states as a syrup, drinkers adding their own soda: Coca-Cola advertising now removed the medicinal claims simply boasting its use as a refreshing National drink, thus shifting its emphasis from medicines mostly for males to a popular drink for women and children too. In this form, and now as bottled soda drink, it escaped the new 1898 patent medicine tax and could be sold at shops and venues not associated with pharmacies.

Concerns about patent medicines and the gathering list of food additives resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 with Coca-Cola weathering some of the subsequent storm, though reducing its caffeine content by half. Tea and coffee had for most of their history been treated as adult drinks based on their caffeine content. But with Coca-Cola the sale of a caffeinated drink to children was finally sanctioned. The distinctive shape of the Coca-Cola bottle was added in 1916.

The end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the rise of competitors like Pepsi-Cola did not threaten sales. In 1975 Coke was challenged by Pepsi, a slightly sweeter drink, and to meet the challenge introduced, after 99 years, ‘New Coke’ was introduced with a different secret formula and this outraged its users, forcing the company to return to Coke Classic formula. Indeed Coca-Cola had, for many, taken the place of drinking coffee and was regarded as more socially acceptable than drinking Beer. By the end of the 1930s Coca-Cola accounted for about a half of all sparkling soft drink sales.[2]

From America to the world

After demonstrating its military power in two world wars America emerged as a global superpower. Popular with soldiers Coco-Cola had followed American military presence around the world, remaining wherever it left. By the end of WWII the company was deliberately expanding into the world with a presence on all continents and by 1950 about one third of its profits came from beyond America. In spite of difficulties with communist countries but by the 1990s was generally accepted. (S p. 261) and the Middle East which manufactures its own look-alike products.

There are various ideological struggles related to American products with Coca-Cola just one of these. Are factories in the developing world providing jobs and raising material living standards, or are they simply exploiting cheap labour? Is American culture, as we see on our televisions and as we experience it through companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola insidiously moulding the world future, not by invasion, but by cultural takeover whether this be intentional or not? The Coca-Cola brand is worth about 70 billion dollars.[1}

The Wakefield factory in the UK produced 100 M cases per year in 1989 and was the largest Coca-Cola factory in Europe producing 1 billion litres of beverage per year.


Today’s Coca-Cola is prepared using a method that reduced caffeine content and removes the original trace of cocaine. But this has not made Coke immune from criticism,

In recent times Coke has been subject to various environmental concerns such as the vast amount of water used and, since 1955, the challenge of its high sugar content and the relation between cheap fizzy drinks and obesity. This led to ‘Diet Coke’ containing the artificial sugar aspartame which has itself been related to obesity. More recently concerns over plastic have focused on Coke whose plastic bottles are the No 1 brand washed up on beaches.

A recent development in 2019 has been ‘freestyle machines with associated app’ which allows the user to choose the content when using select dispensers including the option for ‘healthy’ mixes, thus returning Coke to its original medicinal appeal.

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