Why can't Coca-Cola's secret formula be isolated in a laboratory?

Last week’s headlines carried news of three Coca-Cola employees arrested for trying to sell the secret recipe of Coke to the rival Pepsi Corp. All of this begs the question: Hasn’t the sophistication of analytic chemistry evolved to the point wherein a skilled grad student could deduce the recipe him/herself? What’s the big stumbling block–or is this PR silliness masquerading as a news story? After all, isn’t Coca-Cola’s trademark taste, um, trademarked?

It’s PR.

And anyway, they’re not trying to keep the secret from Pepsi, but rather from off brand colas.

And anyway, there’s not much of a secret. Oh, 10 parts citrus oil, 5 parts this, 2 parts that, 3 parts whatever. The secret is that it’s not much of a secret.

First, the formula was for a new product. It wasn’t the original Coke formula. Coke has more than 400 formulas.

And as a talking head commented on one of the tv stories, the formula itself is no big deal. It could easily be duplicated.

But why would anybody do so? First, Coke’s lawyers would take your eyeteeth and rob your grandmother’s grave for her gold fillings. Second, the taste of Coke is in the brand name on the package. The nasty little secret behind taste tests is that most people really can’t tell the difference between colas in a blind tasting. Maybe a few can - I could, back in the day, but I haven’t drunk colas in 20 years - but we’re too small to be a mass market. Third, even if you could get away with it, how much money could you make? You couldn’t advertise that it has Coke’s taste. You couldn’t compete with Coke or Pepsi. You might be able to market a bargain cola in some places, but that market is pretty well sewn up as well.

There are a million cola formulas in the world. They all work more or less equally for taste. So why bother stealing one?

Coke is peddling mystique with its “secret” formula. I guarantee you that Pepsi not only could duplicate it any time it wished, but has some stashed away to use for comparison testing.

Actually, the nasty secret is that of those Coke drinkers who can taste the difference, most (in a blind test) prefer Pepsi. That’s what the whole “New Coke” thing was about: Coke changed their formula to something that most of their consumers thought tasted better. Except it turns out that the label and PR hype is more important than the taste.

Why would they make some and stash it away when they can just walk down the block to 7-11 and buy a fresh can for less than a dollar?

Which leads me to the question I have pondered for years: how can **anybody **drink any of that sludge?

I don’t think you can trademark a taste. A trademark is just that, a mark. It’s something like a brand name, or a logo.

It’s possible that a cola formula could be protected under trade secret law, but, as I understand the law (and the Wikipedia page, IANAL), it’s perfectly legal to reverse engineer a trade secret.

I would think I would be most vulnerable if my recipe, like Coke’s, contained 5? easy components.

As it is now I say I’m glad we have external protections, but then as a salsa maker, it’s awful hard to isolate various peppery and tomatolike substances. That preserves me.

Was it the recipe or the ingredients? Ingredients are somewhat meaningless, if you can’t figure out the special way those ingredients were put together. I can see why they’d guard the recipe, even if anyone can discover the ingredients.

As William Poundstone noted in his book Big Secrets that anyone with a gas chromatography setup can determine the exact formula for Coke. The president of Pepsi once boasted that he knew the secret of Coke, The basic formula has been reprinted in Poundstone’s book and in Cunningham’s For God, Country, and Coca Cola and basic “cola” recipes are available in various formularies. The general cola recipe is very well known – it’s the precise formula that’s not public. what exact blens of citrus oils is used? Do they throw in touches of lavender? Neroli oil? This is the stuff that makes a difference between the taste of Coke, Pepsi, Royal Crown, and your local supermarket brand.

And, as people have observed above, the dispute isn’t over yout basic Coke, but another drivk.

I don’t believe that’s really true. Sure, with a GC you could probably work out which compounds were in the drink, but you wouldn’t be able to tell where they came from. Is that limonene from orange oil, lemon oil or lime oil? How about that ester or this organic acid?

Analysis could give you a breakdown of compounds present, but not the recipe in “X parts oil of this, Y parts that essence” form.

Using analysis along with other information would give you a pretty good stab at the source. (Have a look at Poundstone’s dissection of the recipe for Oysters Rockefeller in the sequel Bigger secrets – chemical analysis alone doesn’t give the recipe, but analysis along with hints and details and informed speculation from good sources gives a plausible recipe.

That ester or limonene or whatever doesn’t occur by itself in any one source – looking at the entire spectrum and matching to sources conceivably could tell you the constituents. And, again, look at Poundstone’s dissection of the formula via details available through public sources. You can reconstruct not merely the ingredients, but also do informed speculation on just how that recipe is implemented.

That is pretty close. What happened was that Coke was losing market share and its own blind tasters preferred Pepsi. It changed its formula in a panic and ran into the new coke stink.

What no one realised was that the initial blind taste test was flawed. It asked people to take a single sip. Most people preferred the sweeter pepsi, which fooled Coke. However, after drinking the whole can in later tests, the preferences switched as they found Pepsi and New Coke too sweet.

Wasn’t this a sting operation between the two? I thought Pepsi and Coke were involved in the whole thing.

This wasn’t about the “secret” formula for Coke, as others have said that is easy enough to figure out with any reasonable lab equipment. The plot was to steal forumlas and proposals for new products that were under development. Once a product is released it’s easy enough to figure out what’s in it. Getting that to market quickly is what the information would help with.

That only means Pepsi is sweeter than Coke. In blind taste tests, the sweeter drink tends to win. Obviously, there’s a point where it’s too sweet, but, the rule holds generally, which is why Pepsi used taste tests so much.

You should bottle this recipe! Sounds delicious! :wink:

I agree with the OP as I’ve posted this question on the SD in the past. And, the same inconclusive hodgepodge of answers and WAGs surfaced. I say it would be easy enough to reverse engineer in a chem lab, and I still don’t know why it hasn’t been done by an off-brand.

Psst…besides, don’t the Coca-Cola bottlers know Sprite tastes better? They’ve prooved it (c. 1980’s ad campaign) :smiley: (Yes, I know Sprite is a Coke product, but don’t tell them, ok? :wink: - Jinx

But New Coke beat the old Coke AND Pepsi in taste tests; it was definitely better than either under any study they ran. (Personally, I can taste the difference, and I despise Pepsi; it tastes metallic.)

New Coke; tasted great, still a PR disaster.

That makes sense. Is it just me, or is the first couple of mouthfuls of a can of cola the only part that actually tastes good? I’ve often wondered why that is.