Meet the Stepan Company
For years people have speculated about the secret formula of Coca-Cola, and the ingredients its contains. The formula has been locked in a bank vault, and only a few executives can see it.
Coca-Cola, the world's best-selling soft drink, once contained cocaine, and it is still flavored with a non-narcotic extract from the coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived.
This week, details of how Coca-Cola obtains the coca and how it is processed emerged from interviews with Government officials and scientists involved in drug research programs. They identified the Illinois-based Stepan Company as the importer and processor of the coca used in Coke. After Stepan officials acknowledged their ties to Coca-Cola, the soft drink giant confirmed those details of its operations.
In a telephone interview from Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters, Randy Donaldson, a company spokesman, said, ''Ingredients from the coca leaf are used, but there is no cocaine in it and it is all tightly overseen by regulatory authorities.''
Emanuel Goldman, a beverage industry analyst at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco, commented: ''This is old hat to people in the industry, but might come as a surprise to others. But it also makes sense: when you have a good product you change it as little as possible.''
The first batch of Coca-Cola was brewed in 1886 by John Styth Pemberton, a pharmacist, who described the product as a ''brain tonic and intellectual beverage.'' The original recipe included coca with cocaine, but the narcotic was removed just after the turn of the century, according to company spokesmen.
Cans and bottles of Coca-Cola list only ''natural flavors,'' in addition to water, high-fructose corn syrup and/ or sucrose, caramel color, phosphoric acid and caffeine.
A Stepan laboratory in Maywood, N.J., is the nation's only legal commercial importer of coca leaves, which it obtains mainly from Peru and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia.
Besides producing the coca flavoring agent for Coca-Cola, Stepan extracts cocaine from the coca leaves, which it sells to Mallinckrodt Inc., a St. Louis pharmaceutical manufacturer that is the only company in the United States licensed to purify the product for medicinal use.
During the 1980's, imports of coca by Stepan have ranged from 56 metric tons to 588 metric tons a year, according to figures from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Coca known as Medicine for Hundreds of Years
Some coca cultivation is still permitted in Peru, where coca leaves have been both chewed and brewed into teas for centuries. However, the United States has been pressuring Peru and other countries to eradicate the plant and substitute other crops.
Mr. Donaldson declined to discuss whether the Reagan Administration's planned attempt to reduce South American coca growing could have an impact on the company and the formula used to make its soft drink.
He also declined to say whether the new formula Coca-Cola introduced in 1985 contained a coca derivative, noting that it was company policy not to discuss its product formulas.
The Coca Eradication Plan
American officials said recently that, as part of the Administration's war on drugs, they planned to begin testing a coca eradication program in Peru within 90 days. The testing, which is contingent on final approval by the Peruvian Government, would involve the aerial spraying of powerful herbicides.
Critics of the herbicide project charge that it is politically motivated - an attempt to convey an impression of bold action in an election year - and environmentally hazardous.
Others argue that it is bound to fail. According to estimates based on D.E.A. data, enough coca to satisfy the United States demand for cocaine can be produced on 96 square miles of land - an area smaller than the borough of Queens. The climates of much of Latin America as well as Africa and Asia are suitable for the cultivation of coca, a hardy, woody shrub.
How the Coca Is Acquired
John O'Brien, manager of Stepan's Maywood plant, said the company purchases coca from a Peruvian Government corporation, Empresa Nacional de la Coca.
Employees of that company buy the coca from peasant growers, said Timothy Plowman, associate curator of the department of botany at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Dr. Plowman, a botanist and taxonomist who spent years researching coca in Peru, said he had known people in that country who were responsible for buying coca for Coca-Cola and for doing agronomic research for the company. ''But it was always through intermediaries,'' he said. ''Two or three steps removed.'' Bales of coca destined for Stepan and, ultimately, for Coca-Cola are shipped to the Maywood plant through ports in New York and New Jersey, Mr. O'Brien said. Each shipment carries its own import permit, also issued by the D.E.A.
Stepan - and before that the Maywood Company, which was purchased by Stepan in 1959 - has been engaged in coca processing ''for 50, 60 years,'' Mr. O'Brien said. All the coca flavoring ingredients extracted by Stepan are sent on to Coca-Cola to make a concentrated syrup that is used by domestic bottlers and exported to the more than 150 nation's around the world where Coca-Cola is consumed and where the soft drink's familiar red-and-white logotype is closely associated with the United States itself.
A Use in Medicine
The cocaine that Stepan derives from the plants is sold exclusively to Mallinckrodt. An official for that company who asked not to be named said, ''We purchase a crude extract and purify it further into one chemical form, cocaine hydrochloride U.S.P.''
That product is sold to hospitals and doctors ''primarily as a local anesthetic used by eye and ear, nose and throat specialists,'' she said.
Around the turn of the century, the Coca-Cola Company actually publicized the unusual ingredients in its soft drink. An advertisement that ran in Scientific American magazine in 1906 showed pictures of Peruvian peasants chewing narcotic coca leaves, a practice still common in that country, and of Africans gathering cola nuts, which are also used as a stimulant. Coca-Cola, the ad said, ''is the perfectly balanced combination of these valuable tonics in the form of a healthful drink.''
The ad also quoted the Spanish conquistador Pizarro as saying that the use of coca enabled both Indians and foreigners in the high Andes ''to endure without distress physical trials which are otherwise unendurable.''
Dr. Plowman of the Field Museum noted that the Spanish tried, for religious and cultural reasons, to eradicate the coca plantations in the 16th century. They failed, he said, and finally gave up and adopted the practice of using coca themselves. Every attempt at eradication since has been equally unsuccessful.''
Re-posted from the New York Times article "How Coca-Cola Obtains its Coca" by CLIFFORD D. MAY, Published: July 01, 1988, New York Times