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ATLANTA — The Coca-Cola Co. keeps the recipe for its 127-year-old soda inside an imposing steel vault that’s bathed in red security lights. Several cameras monitor the area to make sure the fizzy formula stays a secret.
But in one of the many signs that the surveillance is as much about theater as reality, the images that pop up on video screens are of smiling tourists waving at themselves.
“It’s a little bit for show,” concedes a guard at the World of Coca-Cola museum in downtown Atlanta, where the vault is revealed at the end of an exhibit in a puff of smoke.
The ability to push a quaint narrative about a product’s origins and fuel a sense of nostalgia can help drive billions of dollars in sales. That’s invaluable at a time when food makers face greater competition from smaller players and cheaper store brands.
It’s why companies such as Coca-Cola and Twinkies owner Hostess Brands play up the notion that their recipes are sacred, unchanging documents that need to be closely guarded. As it turns out, some recipes have changed over time, while others may not have.
John Ruff, who formerly headed research & development at Kraft Foods, said companies often recalibrate ingredients for various reasons, including new regulations, fluctuations in commodity costs, and other issues that impact mass food production.
“It’s almost this mythological thing, the secret formula,” said the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, which studies the science of food. “I would be amazed if formulas [for big brands] haven’t changed.”
This summer, the Twinkies cream-filled cakes many Americans grew up snacking on made a comeback after being off shelves for about nine months following the bankruptcy of Hostess. At the time, the new owners promised the spongy yellow cakes would taste just as people remember.
A representative for Hostess, Hannah Arnold, said in an email that Twinkies today are “remarkably close to the original recipe,” noting that the first three ingredients are still enriched flour, water, and sugar.
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Yet a box of Twinkies now lists more than 25 ingredients and has a shelf-life of 45 days, almost three weeks longer than the 26 days from just a year ago. That suggests the ingredients have been tinkered with, to say the least, since they were created in 1930.
Officials of Toledo’s Tony Packo’s restaurants said last year that the company’s secret recipes were locked away in a company safe with no plans to ever change or reveal them.
For its part, KFC says it still strictly follows the recipe created in 1940 by its founder, Colonel Harland Sanders.
Fast forward to 2009, when KFC decided the security for the handwritten copy of the recipe needed a flashy upgrade. It installed a 770-pound safe that is under video surveillance and surrounded by two feet of concrete.
KFC may very well be following the basic instructions of the recipe encased in the vault. But the fanfare around its founder’s instructions is despite his disapproval of the new owners of the chain after he sold his stake in 1964. In his book, for example, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, a friend of Mr. Sanders, recounts how the colonel was annoyed because they came up with a simpler way to drain grease off the chicken by dumping it onto wire racks, rather than ladling the grease off by hand.
A KFC spokesman, Rick Maynard, said the important parts of the recipe are the seasoning, using fresh chicken on the bone, hand breading according to standards, and frying under pressure. As for the chain’s recently introduced boneless Original Recipe chicken, he said it uses the recipe’s seasoning.