Coca-Cola and the art of the perishable

At the start of the twentieth century, the forward march of civilization was embodied by the industry of food science. Perhaps no one encapsulates the era better than John Thompson Dorrance, graduate of MIT and inventor of Campbell’s tomato soup. Dorrance and others created a great shift, as fresh ingredients of varying availability and unpredictable quality were supplanted by dead reliable distillates, extracts, and compounds, guaranteed identical across months and years. Suddenly, you could do real chemistry with food.

Whole new categories of foods sprung up, making use of the newly available purified food reagents, and chief among them were the soft drinks. For millenia, anything you drank was either

  • prepared fresh, like tea or coffee,
  • fermented over months or years, like wine or kombucha, or
  • perishable, like milk or juice.

The soft drinks added a new category, with a virtually unlimited shelf life despite no fermentation in their production.

There were, I’m sure, a profusion of early artificial beverages, and in addition to soft drinks, many others, such as “juice cocktails”, remain with us today. Still, none have approached the profitability of the carbonated soft drinks like Coke. I think there is a reason for this: artificial perishability.

Coca-Cola was only possible because its ingredients, like sugar, purified caffeine, food-grade phosphoric acid, and “caramel color” were widely available non-perishable commodities. Shelf stable ingredients allowed the manufacturer to plan production without perfect suppliers, and a shelf-stable product enabled efficient mass production despite imperfect customers. Shelf stability, however, is a double edged sword. If their customers decided to drink Coke in sips over the course of weeks, they would certainly not be very profitable, and might well not exist today.

Of course, no one sips Coke over weeks, and anyone who’s ever owned a bottle of Coke can tell you why: it goes flat. This is the accidental genius of carbonated soft drinks. A flat bottle of Coke, refrigerated, will still be safe to drink, flavor unchanged, for many months, but the absence of carbonation renders it “perished”. The original distribution of Coke in non-resealable glass bottles just drives the point home.

Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail is well-liked, but the brand will never have the profits, and therefore the presence, of Coca-Cola. The deep reason for this is that, as a modern stable artificial food, Ocean Spray’s product is too good, while Coke is artificially imperfect in an incredibly fortuitous way.

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