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How Was the Top-Secret Coke Formula Determined to Be Kosher?

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Few products in history can match the mythology and ubiquity of Coca-Cola. Started in 1886 by John S. Pemberton, a pharmacist and former Confederate soldier, the company has changed hands several times in its existence. Yet the storied formula of its marquee offering has remained an impressively guarded company secret known only to a few top executives. Owing to some dubious health claims and an innovative marketing strategy—it’s believed to have been the first product to employ coupons—Americans fell fast and hard for Coke.

Of course, no love affair is without its rough patches, and, by the 1930s, Coke’s inscrutability found itself at odds with a niche, but rapidly growing, consumer base: Orthodox Jewish immigrants whose dietary restrictions prevented them from consuming anything that didn’t meet rigid rabbinical guidelines. So, how was Coke ultimately kashered while keeping its prized formula a secret? Through compromise and chemistry.

OUT WITH THE OLD

In 1935, new world consumerism and old world mores found an unlikely intersection in Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s headquarters. Approaching its 50th birthday, Coke was a national icon, available at nearly every soda fountain in the country. Millions of gallons were being consumed every year, many of those by immigrants who, by that point, had settled all over the country. Enter Tobias Geffen, a Lithuanian Jew who’d moved to Atlanta 25 years prior to lead Congregation Shearith Israel. Seeing that Rabbi Geffen and Coke were essentially neighbors, rabbinic leaders from around the country began to write him, asking if it was permissible for Orthodox Jews to drink Coke based on what he knew about the ingredients. Unsure how to reply and unaware of Coke’s staunch protection of their formula, he contacted the company and asked for a list of the ingredients.

Amazingly, Coke agreed to share the list on the condition that Rabbi Geffen swear the formula to secrecy. They didn’t, however, include the amounts of each component, which is as important as the ingredients themselves. Upon examination, Rabbi Geffen noticed that it included glycerin, used as a sweetener, derived from non-kosher beef tallow. Though it was present in small enough amounts to technically meet kosher standards, Geffen decided that, since it was added intentionally and not as a necessary byproduct, he couldn’t sign off on certification. After hearing his ruling, Coke chemists set out to find a tallow substitute that would meet kosher standards without changing the taste. They honed in on a glycerin made from cottonseed and coconut oil that left both parties satisfied, and Geffen gave it his approval.

Still, one problem remained. At Passover, an even stricter set of dietary constraints are followed, and the miniscule amounts of alcohol in Coke from grain kernels were chametz—a Passover no-no. Coke’s scientists hit the lab once again and found that sweeteners from beet and cane sugars could be substituted for grain sweeteners without affecting the taste. Ever since, in the weeks leading up to Passover, Coca-Cola releases a modified formula using cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (just like the much sought-after Mexican Coke), which is bottled with a yellow cap to signify it’s kosher for Pesach.

COKE AND DAGGER

Discounting a single disastrous reformulation in the mid-80s, Coke’s taste has remained remarkably consistent over the past century, which, more than marketing or ubiquity, is likely the greatest contributor to its longevity. Even so, the drink is still subject to periodic rabbinical review to uphold its kosher status. Coca-Cola executives are not quite as forthcoming with its secrets as they were in Rabbi Geffen’s time, though. Now, the company simply provides an overstuffed list of ingredients for approval, all of which are known to be kosher, but only a handful of which are actually used in the formula.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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