The Secret History of Soft Drinks

An odd-sounding title for today’s post, but it turns out that soft drinks have a far more interesting history than I expected. While soft drinks can be seen as a kid’s alternative to alcohol, or as a vilified sugar deliverer, many have a deeper history than that. Surprisingly, many started their lives as medicines.

Firstly, I’ll start with the most popular one- Coca-Cola, a drink so popular and prevalent that in some parts of the world it is the generic term for all soft drinks. Its history is also brought up a lot for fans of interesting facts; anyone with a liking for trivia has probably heard “Did you know Coca-Cola used to have cocaine in it?” quite a few times. So I figured I’d try and find out why it used to contain cocaine.

The answer turns out to be patent medicine; more specifically a patent medicine called Coca Wine, which was was a tonic wine containing cocaethylene (the result of mixing cocaine and alcohol). Coca Wine was produced in France as a brain tonic for scholars and philosophers. American chemist John Pemberton then produced his own brand, called Pemberton’s French Coca Wine, which also contained kola nuts and a herb called damiana. His brand was successful, and marketed as an aphrodisiac and cure-all medicine.

Coca Wine became Coca-Cola after prohibition laws meant alcohol was not permitted in drinks (the cocaine was still fine though). Pemberton and another chemist then experimented with clean versions of the drink they could produce in their own soda fountains, and there Coca-Cola was born. It has since become one of the most popular drinks in the world, although it certainly wouldn’t be regarded as a health tonic any more. (PS: While Coca-Cola does still contain extracts from the coca leaf, it has not contained any actual cocaine since 1903)

Next up is its largest rival, Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi was never created with any drugs or alcohol in, probably due to being created in 1893, after US temperance laws had started. However it was, like Coca-Cola, intended as a health tonic before being a soft drink. Pepsi was the work of an American chemist, Caleb Bradham- for a while after it was created, it was simply known as “Brad’s Drink”- and was a mixture of kola nuts, vanilla, soda water, and the digestive enzyme “pepsin”. He intended to create a drink that would keep people healthy and help their digestion while still remaining tasty. In fact, Pepsi’s original slogan was “Delicious and Healthful”- popular at the time, though probably not allowable today. 

Now for one created in England. William Owen, a chemist from Newcastle, first tried developing a drink for people who could not eat much solid food due to being ill. This drink, known as Glucozade, was first created in 1927, and was so useful that it was almost instantly used in hospitals to aid recovery. Two years later, it took the more familiar name Lucozade. It continued to be sold as a recovery drink, in a glass medicine bottle, until 1983. Since then it has been marketed as an energy and sports drink.

Heading back to America, we have 1929’s 7-UP. Another patent medicine, it was originally designed by chemist Charles Grigg as a hangover cure, under the name “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda”. While that’s quite interesting in itself, the most important part of why 7-UP could be seen as medicinal because it originally contained lithium citrate, a mood stabiliser used even now to treat bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, the lithiated water craze died out in the 1940’s, and 7-UP has not contained any lithium citrate since 1948. So, like many of the drinks on this list, it can’t be called medicinal any more.

Then we have Vimto, which is the odd one out of the group for two reasons. Firstly, it was invented as a cordial (dilutable drink) first and a fizzy drink later. Secondly, it was registered as a medicinal tonic and a beverage almost simultaneously, rather than being solely a medicine. John Nichols, an English herbalist, invented his Vim Tonic (Vim being an older term for vitality and energy), which originally contained fruit juice, herbs and spices. Vim Tonic was later shortened to Vimto, but it kept the association with health- it was marketed as a gentle energiser and immune system support. Also unlike the rest of the drinks here, it did not lose its medicinal qualities abruptly. Instead, it only gradually faded out due to the lack of brand advertising during World War II. This means that Vimto still has a vestige of health in some countries, such as in the Middle East where it is regarded as a strengthening fast-breaker in Ramadan.

I also have two honourable mentions, drinks that weren’t quite designed to be medicines, but still have interesting histories.

The first of these is Dr Pepper, which gets a place on the list for also having been created by a chemist. Charles Alderton created the drink at his soda fountain, and tested it on customers of his friends grocery store, who came back for more. It was marketed as a pick-me-up and brain tonic- one argument for why it has the name Dr Pepper is because it gives people a bit more “pep” in their day. Another theory is that its original recipe might have also contained the pepsin enzyme used in Pepsi. 

Finally, there’s Ribena. This was originally created when a researcher at the University of Bristol (England) was experimenting with making syrup flavourings for milkshakes. They found that drinks made with the blackcurrant syrup were popular, so created Ribena (named after the technical name for blackcurrants, ribes) in 1936. As a soft drink, it was fairly well-received. However, it was WWII that made Ribena popular- the war meant that all the other Vitamin C-containing fruits, such as oranges and lemons, became very difficult to get hold of in the UK. Blackcurrants were the best source of Vitamin C available, so the Government made sure all blackcurrant crops were turned into blackcurrant cordial and given to UK children for free. Even though this drink was not branded as Ribena, it meant almost the entire country would have got used to drinking blackcurrant drink, so once Ribena could advertise itself again after the war it was guaranteed a very large and loyal audience. Hence, it is still a very popular drink in the UK today.

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