Atlanta, GA -If you’ve noticed Coca-Cola bottles with yellow-colored caps materialize each March and April, what you’re looking at is the result of a burgeoning market in parve soda. Most commercial sodas, with their heavy doses of corn syrup and traces of alcohol from grain, are forbidden.
Thirsty Passover observers have an Atlanta-based Orthodox rabbi, Tobias Geffen, to thank. In the 1930s, Geffen was given Coca-Cola’s famously secret list of ingredients and managed to persuade the company to create a real-sugar alternative for his congregants. “Because Coca-Cola has already been accepted by the general public in this country and Canada and because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink, I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage,” he said. Not wanting to be left out, Pepsi, Sprite, Sierra Mist and many others are now available in kosher form for Passover.
At the time, Rabbi Geffen did not know that the formula for Coca-Cola is a closely guarded trade secret; however, once Rabbi Geffen inquired, the Coca-Cola Company made a corporate decision to allow him access to the list of ingredients in Coke’s secret formula provided he swore to keep them in utter secrecy. Geffen agreed to the terms. The company did not tell Geffen the exact proportions of each ingredient, but just gave him a list of contents by name.When Geffen was given the list of ingredients, he discovered that one of them was glycerin made from non-kosher beef tallow. Even though a laboratory chemist told Geffen that the glycerin was present in only one part per thousand (one part in 60 is dilute enough to earn kosher certification), Geffen informed the Coca-Cola Company that, since this glycerin was a planned rather than accidentally added ingredient, observant Jews could not knowingly tolerate its inclusion. Coke failed to meet Geffen’s standards.Back at the company’s laboratories, research scientists went to work finding a substitute for tallow-based glycerin and discovered that Proctor and Gamble produced a glycerin from cottonseed and coconut oil. When they agreed to use to this new ingredient, Geffen gave his hecksher, or seal of approval, for Coke to be marketed as kosher.Still, a second problem vexed Geffen: the formula for Coke included traces of alcohol that were a by-product of grain kernels. Since anything derived from grains is chametz, or forbidden at Passover, Coca-Cola could not be certified kosher for use at Passover even after the formula was changed to include vegetable based glycerin. Coke’s chemists experimented and found that, during the Passover season, they could substitute sweeteners produced from beet sugar and cane sugar for grain-based ones without compromising Coke’s taste. They agreed to start manufacturing Coke with the new sugars several weeks before Passover each year.Rabbi Geffen was pleased to have performed this service for the American Jewish people and the Coca-Cola Company. In his papers, which are housed in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, researchers can find a teshuva (rabbinic response) that Geffen wrote which includes the following:
"Because Coca-Cola has already been accepted by the general public in this country and Canada and because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink, I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage. With the help of G-d I have been able to uncover a pragmatic solution in which there would be no question nor any doubt concerning the ingredients of Coca-Cola."
Thanks to Rabbi Geffen, even the most observant Jews can feel comfortable that "things go better with Coke."