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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


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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.