Attend any social function and chances are, soda will be served – despite its touted ill effects.

While health-conscious parents hasten to keep the pop can away from their children, fans of these fizzy drinks claim that as long as it pumps up their adrenaline on a dreary day and quenches their thirst on a scorching afternoon, it is good enough – and negative effects just do not matter as much.

But it may be surprising to many, that beyond its energising properties, the supposedly toxic soda pop, has healing potential.

“Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, Pepsi, and Moxie all started out as soft drinks that were supposed to have some medical benefit,” says Anne Funderburg, author of ‘Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains’.

“Nobody worried about sugar in the late 19th century. That was an era when people wanted to be plump; women were supposed to be full-figured back then. Certainly, no one worried about their weight the way we do today.”

History has it that there was redeeming power in these much-tainted soft drinks. Dating back to 18th century in Europe, drinking natural mineral waters was believed to cure a variety of illnesses such as gallstones or scurvy. Even bathing from these natural spas was deemed therapeutic.

Early chemists infused carbon dioxide with water

Early soda machines required oversized cranks to manually carbonate water, like these devices from the 1870s. Photo credit: Collectors Weekly
Early soda machines required oversized cranks to manually carbonate water, like these devices from the 1870s. Photo credit: Collectors Weekly

There was a broad appeal of these mineral waters, but packaging and transporting it proved to be difficult, so chemists set out to synthesise it.

It all started in 1767 when British chemist Joseph Priestley tried putting carbon dioxide into water by using a fermenting yeast mash. The result was a weak carbonated drink but it caught on with proponents of its healthful qualities.

With improvements in carbonating water, soda water was sold at public fountains after English-born American inventor John Matthews designed a soda fountain that could produce enough carbonated water for people all day in 1832.

Perhaps, the real breakthrough came when Benjamin Silliman, a chemistry professor at Yale College set up a business selling bottled carbonated drinks in New Haven, Connecticut to supplement his small salary. Afterwards, he began to expand his business, by designing a larger-capacity carbonation apparatus for two pump rooms in New York City.

Silliman focused on the healing potential of soda pop but his competitors leveraged on the fizzy appeal of the drinks and promoted it as a social beverage which soon became a hit.

In their heyday, soda fountains were elaborately designed places for rejuvenation – as shown in the picture above (left), the counter at the Clarkson & Mitchell Drugstore in Springfield, Illinois, circa 1905. Right, an 1894 ad for an ornate fountain produced by Charles Lippincott & Co. Photo credit: Collectors Weekly/Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
In their heyday, soda fountains were elaborately designed places for rejuvenation – as shown in the picture above (left), the counter at the Clarkson & Mitchell Drugstore in Springfield, Illinois, circa 1905. Right, an 1894 ad for an ornate fountain produced by Charles Lippincott & Co. Photo credit: Collectors Weekly/Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

First soda shops sprouted from drugstores

According to Darcy O’Neil, author of “Fix the Pumps”, pharmacists initially used sweet-tasting soda flavours to mask the taste of bitter medicines like quinine and iron, as most medication was taken in liquid form then.

“They were the obvious people to take this on, and they started adding in ingredients they thought were health-providing. Sarsaparilla was linked to curing syphilis. Phosphoric acid was seen as something that could help hypertension and other problems,” said Trisha Donovan, author of “Fizz: How soda shook up the world”. Over time, many flavourful pops have evolved. The first was lemon soda as lemon syrups were already used as a base flavour for many medicines.

The oldest major soft drink in America, Dr Pepper, was created and marketed in 1885 by pharmacist Charles Alderton as an energy drink and a "brain tonic".

Coca-cola, the king of soda pop, was created in 1886, by a pharmacist John Pemberton and it contained cocaine for the first 17 years. Coke was a response to the search for an antidote to morphine addictions that followed the Civil War.

It was not until 1903 that cocaine was removed from the drink, and Coca-Cola became what it is today.

Coca-Cola's biggest competitor, Pepsi-Cola, initially known as “Brad’s Drink” was created with the promise to aid digestion and boost energy.

Originally named as Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda, 7 Up, was said to have contained the mood-stabilising drug known as lithium citrate that was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for psychological disorders, as it “takes the ouch from the grouch”.

Left, early Coca-Cola ads, like this one from 1905, emphasised its energising medicinal effects on the mind. Right, in 1921, the company promoted its soda fountain drinks with ads that outlined the best way to hand-craft a Coke. Photo credit: Collectors Weekly
Left, early Coca-Cola ads, like this one from 1905, emphasised its energising medicinal effects on the mind. Right, in 1921, the company promoted its soda fountain drinks with ads that outlined the best way to hand-craft a Coke. Photo credit: Collectors Weekly

Will there be a future “soda pop”?

The 19th century saw soda fountains mushrooming across America, and soda pop emerging as an American refreshment, synonymous with American culture where people would socialize while enjoying the bubbly beverage.

“Around that time, it became obvious to the medical profession that there weren’t any health benefits to carbonated water on its own, so people started selling it as a treat,” said Funderburg.

The effervescent remedies of the flavoured drinks had attracted both young and old, and according to pharmacists, it tasted “so good, people wanted them, whether they needed them or not.”

Soda pops had had it good. Yet, regardless of its benevolent past, today’s informed population will have no room for tasty, intoxicating medicinal treats that may do more harm than good. For the young and energetic, repackaged soft drinks with lowered sugar content will remain as mere refreshing coolers.

Whatever it is, it may still sound unpalatable that while the healthy consciously avoids sugary peppy pops, these fizzy drinks were once the antidote for better health in the Victorian era.

In a world of evolving change, could yesterday’s elixir make a miraculous healthy comeback – or could it slip into tomorrow’s bag of junkie threats? MIMS

Read more:
Turn your favourite junk food into healthy indulgences
Soda companies’ donations raises questions on conflicts of interest amidst obesity crisis
Nurses: How to tackle the sensitive 'diet' topic with overweight teen patients

Sources:
https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-toxic-history-of-soda-pop/
http://www.medicalbag.com/grey-matter/the-origins-of-soda/article/472378/
https://gizmodo.com/medicinal-soft-drinks-and-coca-cola-fiends-the-toxic-h-1562402090