Coca-cola is potentially a powerful concoction of brain stimulants, yet nothing is known about its acute or chronic effects on the brain.
The origins of Coca-Cola
John Stith Pemberton was born in Knoxville Georgia in 1831 and attended the Reform Medical College in the city of Macon. In 1850, at the age of nineteen, he became licensed as a pharmacist and began his career as a chemist and druggist. When the civil war broke out he joined the Third Cavalry Battalion of the Georgia State Guard. During the battle of Columbus, the last of the civil war, he suffered a wound to the chest that left him in a great deal of pain. This began an addiction to morphine, a powerful opiate derived usually from poppy but found in other plants as well. Unhappy with his addiction he began mixing various potions in an effort to find another analgesic that could rid him of it.
Among his various experiments was one with coca. Coca leaves, when chewed, were long known to act as a stimulant and suppress hunger, thirst, fatigue and pain. The primary active ingredient of coca is cocaine which had been identified and extracted from coca leaves in the mid 1800s by a German physician. By the 1880s it was gaining popularity as an anesthetic used for surgeries as well as a drug dispensed by physicians for anxiety, depression and to treat addiction. It was a natural choice for Pemberton’s experimentation.
Coca-cola as a Brain and Nerve tonic
Combining coca extracts with extracts from kola nuts and damiana and alcohol, he arrived at a concoction that he called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. Kola nuts are not only high in caffeine but have also been traditionally thought to aid digestion. Damiana is more mysterious. Used in central America as an aphrodisiac and touted for helping with headaches and energy, its active ingredients are still unknown. As alcohol became legislated he removed the alcohol from his concoction and eventually replaced it with soda to make the historic Coca-Cola. He promoted it as an “intellectual beverage” and a Brain and Nerve tonic, one that could cure headaches, relieve exhaustion and deliver you with exhilarating and invigorating joy. It was particularly beneficial, he said, for “ladies, and all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration”. Initially it was available through the drug store and soon found its way to the soda fountain.
In the early 1900s as public concerns arose over the use of cocaine, the Coca-cola company removed cocaine from its recipe retaining the other elements of the coca extract. Today cocaine is a byproduct of Coke’s manufacturing process that must be destroyed under federal supervision. (Still, apparently $56 million worth of cocaine was found last year at its French manufacturing plant). What of the original extract remains is secret.
Coke today still promotes itself for its psychological benefits, the invigorating joy, albeit more subtly. But what really is its legacy on the human brain?
Coca-cola and the brain
In 2012 (the last statistics I could find) per capita consumption of 8 oz Coca-Cola beverages in the United Sates was 406, which gets close to 2 litres a week! This is third only to Mexico and Chile. Despite the ubiquitous daily consumption and powerful concoction of stimulants in the original formula, many of which may still remain, the effect of Coca-Cola on the human brain has shockingly never been studied. The acute effects of some of the known ingredients such as caffeine and sugar on elements of cognition such as attention, memory and emotional valence have been studied a little bit, though not very thoroughly, and long term effects of chronic consumption have not been studied at all. If we were to track it, the long term effects of chronic consumption on the human brain and society at large could well be significant.
Food, beverages and brain health
Even as the FDA and its overseas counterparts look to regulate and monitor food and beverages entering the market, the impact on the brain is rarely if ever a consideration. Yet, what we consume may have profound impact on our cognitive and mental health trajectories as a society.
see related post Your Brain from Noodles to Nuts
Our lack of attention to this could cost us.