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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
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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