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God, Glycerine, Flavouring, and Kosher Coca-Cola

“With the help of God, I have been able to uncover a pragmatic solution,” declared Tobias Geffen, the Chief Rabbi of Atlanta, in 1935. What was the problem for which a solution was needed? Whether or not Coca-Cola was kosher!

​This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.

The famous beverage had been introduced as a health tonic by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton, who had been wounded in the Civil War and had become addicted to morphine, the only substance that controlled his pain. Concerned about his addiction, Pemberton searched for an opium-free painkiller and came up with an alcoholic concoction laced with extracts of the coca leaf and the kola nut. The combination of alcohol with cocaine from the coca and caffeine in the kola certainly would have dulled the pain.

When Atlanta introduced temperance legislation in 1886, Pemberton had to remove alcohol from his tonic and looked for novel ways to make it palatable. He added sugar along with a mix of fruit juices and plant extracts, keeping the exact composition a secret as protection from would-be competitors. Legend has it that one day he accidentally used carbonated water to formulate his product and was so taken by the taste that he decided to market “Coca-Cola” as a fountain drink.

Pemberton’s health was poor, and in 1888 he sold the company to another Atlanta pharmacist, Asa Candler, who later sold it to a group of investors headed by Robert Woodruff. Under Woodruff, the company grew into a global concern with clever marketing highlighting the secret nature of the formula, supposedly known only to two executives who were never allowed to travel together.

By the 1930s, the popularity of the beverage was enticing Jewish consumers who wondered if it conformed to the laws of kashrut, which are very complicated. Four-legged animals destined to be eaten have to chew their cud, have split hooves and must be butchered in a certain fashion. Meat and dairy cannot be mixed, insects are forbidden and only fish with scales can be consumed. The production of kosher food has to be supervised by a mashgiach, basically an inspector who is trained in the ways of kashrut. Contrary to what many people think, the dietary laws were formulated based on spiritual, not bodily health. The idea was that adherence to kashrut would form a unifying bond among Jews and would serve as a constant reminder of the importance of a relationship with God, who had laid down the dietary laws.

When it came to Coca-Cola, there was a problem. The company had built its marketing campaign largely around the secret ingredients in its formula and getting approval as being a kosher product would mean having to disclose the ingredients for evaluation. There was much hesitation about this, but finally the company decided that it would be financially too painful to lose the Jewish market, and in 1935 made a deal with Rabbi Geffen allowing him to scrutinize the formula as long as he promised to reveal only information pertaining to kashrut.

The rabbi found two problems. Glycerine, used as a sweetener and preservative, was made from non-kosher beef fat. Since glycerine can also be produced from plant products, Coke’s supplier, Procter and Gamble, easily replaced animal fat with cottonseed and coconut oils. A second concern was that some of the flavours used in Coke were extracted with alcohol, and since the source of the alcohol was not clear, there was the possibility that it had been fermented from grains that were not kosher for Passover. This was solved by using alcohol that had been fermented from sugar found in sugar beets or sugar cane. Once these changes were made, Coca Cola received approval as a kosher beverage. Observant Jews rejoiced, at least until Coke replaced cane sugar with high fructose corn syrup as its sweetener.

During Passover, corn and products made from it, are avoided by some segments of the Jewish population, notably those originating in Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazi Jews. Back in the 13th century, rabbis worried that some people might confuse flour made from corn with flour made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt, grains forbidden during Passover. They decided that the best way to prevent this was by also banning any food, such as corn, that could be confused with the banned grains. To ensure sales during Passover, Coca-Cola now produces a “kosher for Passover” version of its classic beverage that is made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. Diet Coke contains no corn products, so there is no issue with it being suitable for Passover.

Rabbi Geffen did indeed uncover a pragmatic solution. Whether it was with the help of God or not will remain a mystery. But it was certainly with the help of chemists.


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