Jun 9, 2022 - Business

Remember when... the feds sued Coca-Cola over caffeine?

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Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Welcome to "Remember when...," a semi-regular Throwback Thursday feature where we revisit the largely forgotten strange, uplifting, pivotal or baffling moments from Atlanta’s history.

In the early 1900s, Harvey Washington Wiley was on a crusade to save the country from a menace: soft drinks and brain tonics that contained additives ranging from lithium to cocaine to, yes, caffeine.

  • Eager to make an example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief chemist set his sights on Coca-Cola.

In 1909, federal agents seized a shipment of Coca-Cola syrup traveling from Atlanta to a Tennessee bottling plant. Thus was born the wonderfully named lawsuit: United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca Cola.

  • During the trial, government witnesses painted the soft drink — which years earlier had removed the trace amounts of cocaine in the product — as poison that turned students at a girls’ school into “wild nocturnal freaks,” Mark Pendergrast writes in his book “For God, Country, and Coca-Cola.”

The verdict: A judge dismissed the case, ruling that caffeine was not an additive, Deborah Blum writes in her 2018 book “The Poison Squad.”

  • The feds persisted, and in 1916 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ruling. Coca-Cola voluntarily cut the amount of caffeine in its drinks by half.

Yes, but: Blum notes that a star witness for the defense built an argument that helped turn caffeine into one of our most widely consumed drugs.

  • Harry Hollingworth, a psychologist, ran a groundbreaking 40-day double-blind study on the effects of caffeine. His findings: The substance wasn’t turning people into ravenous speed demons.
  • In fact, in reasonable amounts, it could make people more alert and productive.

Next time you take a sip, thank Harry.


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