How The Coca-Cola Company Has Kept Its Recipe ‘Secret’ For More Than 130 Years

Since its invention by John Pemberton in 1886, Coca-Cola has become the most well known soft drink in the world. Yet who actually knows the Coca-Cola recipe?

On its website, Coca-Cola claims the company's "secret formula for making Coca-Cola has remained a trade secret for 130 years." Shrouding the drink's ingredients in secrecy "creates a natural curiosity about the product itself," according to social psychologist and marketing expert Ben Voyer

As the years have passed and speculation concerning the Coke recipe has grown, people have come out of the woodwork claiming to know the recipe and other company secrets. Yet Coca-Cola insists its methods remain unknown by the public. So how does Coca-Cola protect its formula? 

  • Pemberton Invented Coca-Cola In 1886, But The Formula Was Not Written Down Until 1919
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pemberton Invented Coca-Cola In 1886, But The Formula Was Not Written Down Until 1919

    While Pemberton is technically the creator of the beloved carbonated beverage, he sold the company to Asa Candler soon after its invention in 1886. Pemberton passed in 1888, and Candler became Coca-Cola's sole proprietor in 1892.

    For more than a quarter century, the recipe was disclosed only by word of mouth. When Ernest Woodruff acquired the company in 1919, he used the secret formula as collateral for the loan he needed to finalize the purchase. According to Coca-Cola's website:

    [Woodruff] asked Candler's son to write the formula down and placed the paper in a vault in the Guaranty Bank in New York until the loan was repaid in 1925. At that point, Woodruff reclaimed the secret formula, returned it to Atlanta and placed it in Trust Company Bank, now SunTrust, where it remained for 86 years until its recent move to the World of Coca-Cola.

  • After Buying The Company In 1919, Ernest Woodruff Used The Secret Formula As A Marketing Gimmick

    Woodruff, a savvy businessman, made a public display out of procuring the Coca-Cola company and its special recipe. Keeping the written ingredients list sealed in a bank vault amplified the drink's desirability and special status.

    In 1923, Ernest Woodruff made his son Robert president of the company. Working under his father's guidance, Robert became a marketing whiz in his own right, integrating the drink into the lives of every day consumers - not just in the United States but around the world. Under Robert's management, the company began selling Coke overseas and, in 1928, sent Coca-Cola along with Team USA to the Amsterdam Olympics. Robert also was an early proponent of the six-pack, which brought even more of his product into customers' homes.

  • The Original Formula Now Resides At The World Of Coca-Cola Museum In Atlanta

    In a widely publicized gesture, Coca-Cola company executives had the secret recipe moved from the bank vault to Atlanta's World of Coca-Cola Museum. This was done as part of the company's 125th anniversary celebrations in 2012.

    Phil Mooney, director of archives for Coca-Cola, explained in a media release how his company "has always gone to great lengths to protect [its formula] and now by safeguarding it at the World of Coca-Cola, we can share its legendary legacy with people around the world."

    Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent went into more detail at the time, saying:

    By sharing this secret formula experience with our consumers, we celebrate both the rich history of the brand's beginnings and the moments of refreshment and happiness to come for future generations. This is yet another way we are recognizing and thanking everyone around the world who has made the Coca-Cola brand what it is today.

  • You Can Visit The Vault Where The Formula Is Allegedly Stored

    Coca-Cola informed the media it would be sending its sacred formula to the World of Coca-Cola, where it would be put on display within The Vault of the Secret Formula.

    Today, the formula is allegedly sealed within this elaborately decorated vault, equipped with "a palm scanner, a numerical code pad, and massive steel door." The mood is further intensified with red lighting and smoke machines.

    The vault has become an attraction for the Coke museum, tempting guests with the promise of becoming "closer than ever before to the secret formula." Here, the extensive exhibit includes: immersive multimedia journey toward the Chamber of the Secret Formula. Along the way, learn about the origins of the secret formula, how competitors tried to copy the success of Coca‑Cola, how the owners of Coca‑Cola kept the formula secret throughout the years, and how the secrecy spawned a trove of myths and legends.

  • The Secret Ingredients Are Listed As ‘Natural Flavors’ On Coke Cans And Bottles

    Many people believe Coca-Cola hides its unknown ingredients behind the "natural flavors" label on its bottles and cans, especially since the Food and Drug Administration has no standard definition for the word "natural." What it considers "natural" includes the following:

    The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

    Ohio State University claims the natural flavors in Coca-Cola include coca leaves, vanilla, and cinnamon. How much of each ingredient constitutes the soda's signature flavor, or what other ingredients may contribute to it, is anyone's guess.

  • It's Rumored That Two Coke Executives Know Only Half Of The Recipe Each - And Can’t Fly On The Same Plane

    As part of the grandiose story surrounding its history, the Coca-Cola Company maintains only two executives know the recipe for Coke at a time. Some rumors state they are each given just half of the recipe, but this has been invalidated by the fact-finding website Snopes.

    One advertising campaign promoted the fact that, for safety's sake, these two executives aren't allowed to fly on the same plane. While it's true Coca-Cola does have a rule about two of its executives having access to the recipe, they each know how to make the syrup without the other's help.