Facts That Figure: Soda Cans

Facts That Figure: Soda Cans

By: C.G. Hoffman

It seems that nothing quite soothes a parched throat on a hot summer day as a cold can of soda. But where do soda cans come from? And what exactly do they contain?

For as long as humans have traveled from one place to the other, they needed a portable method of carrying water or other drinks. After all, you couldn’t cross the desert without knowing if you could rely on any water sources on the way. The Mishna mentions that one of the ways people in ancient times would carry water was in water skins, skins of sheep or goats that were specially treated to stay watertight. Other ancient peoples used animal bladders or whatever they had lying around, such as coconuts or animal horns.

Thank Napoleon and his voracious appetite for conquest for the invention of canning. Napoleon needed a cheap, reliable method for feeding his troops in the field as an army marches on its stomach. He promised a reward of 12,000 francs for whoever would come up with the best method.

The first cans were made of glass, which was not very practical for an army on the run. Later versions, developed in England, were made of tin. The British army and navy relied on canned foods to feed their soldiers and sailors. Tin cans also helped fuel the fascination with exploration in the 19th century and were taken along on expeditions to the North and South poles.

The first beverage to be sold in cans was beer, first available in 1935, with soda following soon after. Each can was factory sealed and could only be opened with a special opener called a “church key,” a long pointed piece of metal. Drinkers would punch two holes in the top of the can, one for airflow and one for drinking.

After the invention of the aluminum can in 1958, the first pull tab openers were invented. The popularity of the soda can soared, as now people didn’t need any special tools to pop open a cold drink on a hot day. However, the removable tabs were a littering nightmare and a choking hazard until the fixed tab was invented in 1975.

The first sodas were only sold by pharmacists and were billed as “medicine” or “health tonics,” with many containing ingredients that would be illegal today, such as cocaine. Pharmacists started adding sweet flavors to mask the medicinal taste, and so sweet, flavored soda was born.

It seems every soda brand has a dark secret: The original Coca-Cola contained cocaine and was considered a healthier alternative to morphine. 7-up was sold as an antidepressant (It contained lithium!), and Fanta was created in Nazi Germany when the German manufacturers of Coca-Cola couldn’t get hold of the original ingredients during wartime.

Coca-Cola was one of the first American food items to receive a hechsher. Rav Tovia Geffen, a rav in Atlanta, became one of the only people in the world to be privy to the much-vaunted, top-secret formula for Coca-Cola. He convinced the company to switch to vegetable-based glycerin, and observant Jews have been enjoying Coca-Cola ever since. (Some non-Jews even stock up on Kosher L’Pesach Coke, claiming the sugar-cane-based recipe tastes much better.)

In 2000, Americans spent over $60 billion on soda, and the average American consumed 53 (!) gallons of soda that year! The average American child drinks 500 cans of soda a year (unless you’re smart and save soda for Shabbos.)

The average 12 oz. can of soda contains about 40 grams of refined sugar. At 500 cans per year, that’s more than 62 pounds of sugar from soda alone.

Coca-Cola spends $4 billion a year on advertising.


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