Coke, others play up notion that their recipes are sacred


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ATLANTA -- Coca-Cola keeps the recipe for its 127-year-old soda inside an imposing steel vault that's bathed in red security lights. Several cameras monitor the area to make sure the fizzy formula stays a secret.

But in one of the many signs that the surveillance is as much about theater as reality, the images that pop up on video screens are of smiling tourists waving at themselves.

"It's a little bit for show," concedes a guard at the World of Coca-Cola museum in downtown Atlanta, where the vault is revealed at the end of an exhibit in a puff of smoke.

The ability to push a quaint narrative about a product's origins and fuel a sense of nostalgia can help drive billions of dollars in sales. That's invaluable at a time when food makers face greater competition from smaller players and cheaper supermarket store brands that appeal to cash-strapped Americans.

It's why companies such as Coca-Cola play up the notion that their recipes are sacred, unchanging documents that need to be closely guarded. As it turns out, some recipes have changed over time, while others may not have. Either way, they all stick to the same script that their formulas have remained the same.

John Ruff, who formerly headed research & development at Kraft Foods, said companies often recalibrate ingredients for various reasons, including new regulations, fluctuations in commodity costs and other issues that impact mass food production.

"It's almost this mythological thing, the secret formula," said the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, which studies the science of food. "I would be amazed if formulas [for big brands] haven't changed."

For its part, KFC says it still strictly follows the recipe created in 1940 by its famously bearded founder, Colonel Harland Sanders. The chain understood the power of marketing early on, with Mr. Sanders originally dying his beard white to achieve a more grandfatherly look.

Fast forward to 2009, when KFC decided the security for the handwritten copy of the recipe needed a flashy upgrade. It installed a 770-pound safe that is under constant video and motion-detection surveillance and surrounded by two feet of concrete on every side -- just in case any would-be thieves try to dig a tunnel to get it.

PepsiCo also celebrates its origins and in the past two years held its annual shareholders meeting in New Bern, N.C., where Caleb Bradham is said to have created the company's flagship soda in the late 1890s. But the formula for Pepsi was changed to make it sweeter in 1931 by the company's new owner, who didn't like the taste.

In the 1980s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo both switched from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sweetener. The companies last year also said they'd change the way they make the caramel coloring used in their sodas to avoid having to put a cancer warning label on their drinks in California, where a new law required such labels for foods containing a certain level of carcinogens.

Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo say the sweetener and caramel sources do not alter the basic formulas or taste for their sodas. And they continue to hype up the enduring quality of their recipes.

food - businessnews


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