Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda Pop
Soda’s reputation has fallen a bit flat lately: The all-American beverage most recently made headlines due to an FDA investigation of a potential carcinogen, commonly called “caramel coloring,” used in many soft-drink recipes. This bit of drama follows other recent stories that paint an unflattering picture of the soda industry, including New York’s attempt to ban super-sized drinks, the eviction of soda machines from many public schools, and a spate of new soda-tax proposals. All these regulations are designed to mitigate the unhealthy impacts of Big Soda, such as increasing childhood obesity, in the same way restrictions were slapped on cigarettes in years past.
“The drink became symbolic of America, and even freedom in a way. It made Coca-Cola more than just another fizzy drink.”
Faced with all this bad press, it’s hard to believe that the “evil” soft drink actually began as a health product, touted for its many beneficial effects. In fact, soda got its start in Europe, where the healing powers of natural mineral waters have been prescribed for hundreds of years. Bathing or drinking the water from these natural spas was thought to cure a wide variety of illnesses. Tristan Donovan, the author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, says that the ailments treated with bubbling spring waters constituted a “ludicrously big list,” everything from gallstones to scurvy. (In reality, the beverage did little more than settle an upset stomach, without any adverse side effects.)
Despite the broad appeal of mineral water, packaging and transporting this effervescent liquid proved difficult, so chemists set out to make their own. “It took until 1767 for the real breakthrough to happen when Joseph Priestley, the British chemist who was the first to identify oxygen, figured out a way to put carbon dioxide into water,” says Donovan. Priestley’s process used a fermenting yeast mash to infuse water with the gas, resulting in a weakly carbonated drink. Proponents of the bubbly beverage’s healthful properties were thrilled.
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