ATLANTA - Coca-Cola keeps the recipe for its 127-year-old soda inside a steel vault that's bathed in red security lights. Cameras monitor the area to make sure the formula stays a secret.
But in a sign 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 narrative about a product's origins and fuel a sense of nostalgia can help drive billions of dollars in sales. It's why companies play up the notion that their recipes are sacred, unchanging documents that need to be closely guarded.
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."
In the book "Secret Formula," which was published in 1994 and drew from interviews with former executives and access to Coca-Cola's corporate archives, reporter Frederick Allen noted that multiple changes were made to the formula over the years. For instance, Allen noted that that the soda once contained trace amounts of cocaine as a result of the coca leaves in the ingredients, as well as four times the amount of caffeine.
In an emailed statement, Coca-Cola said its secret formula has remained the same since it was invented in 1886 and that cocaine has "never been an added ingredient" in its soda.
As it turns out, some products have changed, while others may not have. Either way, companies try to make people believe their recipes have remained the same.
Watch a clip promoting the vault exhibit at the World of Coca-Cola (mobile users: http://bit.ly/1djN5kz):