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The Secrets Behind 7 Secret Recipes

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Wikimedia Commons

Proclaiming that your product contains secret ingredients is a tactic as old as marketing itself. These seven restaurant chains, drink manufacturers, and food companies have exploited the fact that "the unknown" will always be more exciting than, "just some mayo and paprika."

1. Big Mac Special Sauce

While not explicitly secret, the "special sauce" found in McDonald's Big Macs is the most mysterious ingredient of its "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions—on a sesame seed bun." In 2012, McDonald's executive chef Dan Coudreaut released a YouTube video explaining how to make a Big Mac at home—and how to make your own special sauce. Confirming many folks' suspicions, the sauce is just a variation of Thousand Island dressing: mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, yellow mustard, white wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika (although, depending on the country in which it's sold, the restaurant throws in some preservatives and other stuff you'd be more likely to find in a chemist's lab than at a market).

2. Bush's Baked Beans Secret Recipe

YouTube

Bush's Baked Beans' ad campaign centers around Jay Bush and his corporate snitch of a dog, Duke. According to Duke's self-penned bio on their website, "Back when Jay shared the Secret Family Recipe for Bush's Baked Beans with me, his best friend, he didn't know that I could speak. And ever since, I've been trying to sell the recipe." 

The original recipe was invented in 1967 and a copy of Bush's recipe book (minus the actual baked beans recipe), is on display at their visitor’s center in Tennessee. Why is it kept secret? Try to think of another company's baked beans ad, and therein lies your answer.

3. Coca-Cola's "Merchandise 7X"

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Coca-Cola's long-guarded "secret formula" has a weapons-grade name, "Merchandise 7X," and enough cloak-and-dagger lore to make Ian Fleming blush (he died in 1964, so that's a whole lotta lore). The recipe famously sits in a bank vault in Atlanta, and ad campaigns have focused on how only two company execs have access to two separate halves of the secret formula (this isn't true).

In 2011, This American Life uncovered an alleged version of the original formula (or a precursor to it) that was copied by Coca-Cola inventor John R. Pemberton's friend. This document wasn't hiding in a bank vault, but in a newspaper—in 1979, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution printed a photo from an old notebook that, upon close inspection, seemed to match the famous secret formula. You can check out the recipe here (and yes, it includes FE Coca, a.k.a. the fluid extract of coca leaves).

4. Dr Pepper's 23 Flavors

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If urban legend is to be believed, Dr Pepper is just a soda-fied prune juice. If Dr Pepper's website is to believed, this is flat-out untrue. "Dr Pepper is a unique blend of natural and artificial flavors," they assert. "It does not contain prune juice." Then what does it contain? The soft drink boasts 23 flavors, and the specifics of these is considered "proprietary information" by the company.

Keep in mind that "flavors" doesn't necessarily mean "ingredients," so it could all be subjective. A quick Google search will uncover some guesses (although we're not sure apricot is any more refreshing than prune juice).

5. Colonel's "Secret Blend of 11 Herbs and Spices"

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In 1940, Colonel (née Harland) Sanders whipped up a "secret blend of 11 herbs and spices" for his now-ubiquitous Kentucky Fried Chicken. The recipe is locked in a vault at the company's headquarters, and it's said that the ingredients are made and processed by separate manufacturers who are unaware of what the others are producing in order to prevent the mysterious concoction from ever being revealed.

In their ingredients list, KFC merely lists this as "Secret Original Recipe Seasoning." However, for his book "Big Secrets," William Poundstone took a batch of the Colonel's chicken to a lab for testing. According to Poundstone (via LiveScience), "The sample of coating mix was found to contain four and only four ingredients: flour, salt, monosodium glutamate, and black pepper. There were no eleven herbs and spices—no herbs at all in fact."

6. Barr's Irn-Bru

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Scottish soft drink Irn-Bru was invented in 1901, and its secret recipe "is held under lock and key in a vault in Switzerland." According to their website, only three people know the recipe: Former Chairman Robin Barr, his daughter and Legal Affairs Manager Julie Barr, and one other board director "whose identity remains confidential." Irn-Bru does concede that iron is one of the drink's ingredents (hence the name).

7. Chartreuse

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The legend of this liqueur is long and complex, and it goes something like this: In 1605, the Marshal of King's Henri IV artillery gave a secret manuscript for an "Elixer of Long Life" to the monks of a monastery outside Paris. The monks couldn't immediately decipher the combination of 130 herbs, but in the 18th century the recipe was sent to a separate monastery where its apothecary, Frère Jerome Maubec, learned how to make a drink from the list. In the years that followed, the liqueur underwent changes to produce different varieties (green, white, and yellow), but Chartreuse is still made by monks—and the recipe is still secret—to this day.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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