Like love or peace or tenderness, cola is not a simple thing, but a complex one. In the mid 1800s, John Pemberton invented the soft drink we know by the name by combining extracts of the African kola nut and the coca plant: Coca-Cola was born. But the taste of cola—originally a pharmaceutical tonic—had very little to do with either coca or kola. The coca leaf was originally chosen as a palliative to Pemberton’s morphine addiction, and the bitter kola nut added caffeine. To make the drink palatable and marketable, sugar and other flavorings were added. The taste we know as “cola” today is an amalgam of essential oils: citrus and cassia (a cinnamon bark) mostly, with variations that include lavender, anise, nutmeg, and other flavorings. Caramel gives cola its unique color and density.
Today’s mass-market colas use less potent and less dear versions of the natural ingredients that make a soda a cola, and caramel is used exclusively for coloring rather than for depth of flavor. That makes the brown color unnecessary; a vestigial feature that makes cola look the way consumers expect it to, and to distinguish it from lemon-lime drinks.
In 1992, PepsiCo decided to call cola’s bluff. The result was Crystal Pepsi, a soft drink as clear as Sprite or 7-Up that could still boast the familiar and popular taste of a cola.
The early 1990s were a primordial soup for cause marketing and new appeals to naturalness, rekindling ideals first set alight in the ‘70s. Earth Day had been reborn as an international marketing juggernaut. Environmental causes gained steam, among them recycling programs and the reduction of ozone-destroying chemicals. Organic food became more widely certified, and natural food chains like Whole Foods expanded rapidly.