The Truth Behind Secret Recipes in Coke, KFC, Etc.

Everybody loves secrets, mystery, and intrigue. That's why mystery novels and films have been popular for decades, and why shows like "The X-Files" and "Lost" are cult hits.

The commercial appeal of a good mystery (real or manufactured) has not been lost on advertisers. "Mystery meat" aside, several famous brands have emphasized the uniqueness of their secret-ingredient-containing products.

According to Jay Bush of Bush's Best Beans, "Our baked beans are made from a secret recipe that's been passed down and closely guarded by generations of the Bush family." In their commercials, Duffy "Duke" of Castlebury, Jay's treacherous golden retriever, repeatedly tries to sell the secret recipe to the highest bidder. Jay notes that "he hasn't spilled the beans yet, but every dog has his price." (Actually, as long as we are revealing secrets, the real Duke is actually portrayed by a trained stunt double — is nothing sacred?)

Coca-cola has one of the most famous secret recipes in the world; ads whimsically claim that only two men know the ingredient list, and describe the dire consequences that would befall the planet if the secret was ever lost, including a hole appearing in the fabric of the universe. (Technically, Coca-Cola is no longer produced, and hasn't been commercially available for years. What most people refer to as "Coke" or "Coca-cola" is actually "Coca-cola Classic," since the now-discontinued "New Coke" was branded simply "Coke.")

Dr. Pepper claims that its secret blend of 23 flavors is known by only three people alive today. Kentucky Fried Chicken is home of the famous blend of "eleven secret herbs and spices," closely guarded by the company. And so on.

But is there really any such thing as a "secret ingredient" these days? After all, over the past decade consumers have gotten more and more disclosure about what's in the food they eat-- everything from calorie content to food allergy information. Furthermore, laboratory analysis has kept up with the times. Perhaps when A.J. Bush baked his first recipe in 1908, or when the Coca-Cola company was founded in 1892, there was no way to determine what "secret ingredients" might be in a product.

But these days, any laboratory worth its sodium chloride can tell pretty much what chemicals and ingredients appear in what quantities of a given sample. It's food science, not rocket science.

In his book "Big Secrets," William Poundstone revealed a laboratory analysis of Kentucky Fried Chicken: "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... Nothing was found in the sample that couldn't be identified." So much for the "secret." In fact, the chicken's ingredient statement is available on KFC's Web site.

As for Coke Classic, well, the formula can be found on page 43 of Poundstone's book, but it includes vanilla extract, citrus oils, and lime juice flavoring.

There's no cocaine in Coke, and technically there never was, though it uses coca leaves and kola nuts as flavorings and stimulants. Cocaine is not the same as the coca leaf it is derived from; for centuries, natives in South American countries regularly chewed on the coca leaf for its anesthetic and mild stimulant properties. But just as chewing on a coca leaf is not "taking cocaine," neither is drinking a Coke.

I had planned to reveal the whole Coke Classic formula, but as I prepared this column I got a threatening e-mail from someone who told me that if I did, he would "get medieval" on me. He referred obliquely to various implements of torture including thumb screws and the Billy Ray Cyrus single "Achy Breaky Heart." Revealing some secrets comes at too high a price. I also got an e-mail from Duke Bush (who, by the way, is amazingly competent on the keyboard despite his lack of opposing thumbs) offering to sell me his secret bean recipe.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.