Radiated, Lithiated and All Coked Up — Lessons Lost in Food Labeling and Ingredient History

It started when my mom and I squealed when we found a 7-Up cake.

A what, my husband asked!

So when we got home, I had to wikipedia search to prove to him that 7-up cake was just one of those fun 50s ingredient substitute things…you’d run across it at showers, like for babies or brides. His loss.

Just to let you know, it’s basically pound cake with 7-Up. Super moist, slightly lemon-limey.

My husband scanned the entry.

Huh, he said, look at this, 7-Up contained…lithium.

Oh yeah I said, sodas were originally “medicinal,” (hear my air quotes — let’s just say recreational drinking used to have a whole other meaning when it came to sodas) or, anyway, contained a lot of controlled substances. Coke had cocaine, I said.

That’s an urban myth, he said.

No way, totally true. Source cite 7-Up.

Fact: 7-Up was created by Charles Grigg and his Howdy Corporation. It launched in 1929. The product, originally named “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda”, was launched two weeks before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. That’s called perfect market timing!

It contained lithium citrate, a mood-stabilizing drug, until 1950.

See?

And sure enough, coke has a similar history.

From wikipedia (yeah yeah it’s a source): “Originally intended as a patent medicine when it was invented in the late 19th century by John Pemberton, Coca-Cola was bought out by businessman Asa Griggs Candler, whose marketing tactics led Coke to its dominance of the world soft-drink market throughout the 20th century.”

It came from Prohibition (the 1880s one) and was sold as a legal version of “french wine” ( a coca wine) and claimed to cure all sorts of ills from morphine addiction to impotence. Well sure, when you consider its two main ingredients were cocaine and caffeine! And it wasn’t a little cocaine…it was five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup.

Let’s put that in perspective — an ounce of cocaine could be worth 2-4 thousand dollars on the street. Says the Google.

Imagine a coke and smile!

And once upon a time–and this is actually alarming–radium was the best thing you could put on a label to sell anything from face cream to paint to bread to chocolate and even watch dials. In fact, watch dials are what finally sprung the goose on the dangers of radium.

Check out the story of Grace Fryer and the Radium Girls starting in the early 1920s. At the he United States Radium Corporation, these factory workers painted radium-based watch dials, often licking the paint brushes to get a fine point because the radium broke down the bristles. When Grace Fryer thought her dental and bone problems might have a basis in the radium paint she consumed, she took action along with other former workers.

Despite unbelievable obstacles while dying horribly, they persisted in fighting in the legal system to reshape US Labor Laws, how corporations report safety issues, and how corporations compensate harmed workers.

It also made a huge impression on a consuming public, now beginning to pay attention to the safety of products sold to them.

This is how and why product labeling is important. Although we may be initially unaware of the long-term effects and dangers of some ingredients, eventually, we do learn, albeit usually the hard way.

Current nutrition labeling is viewed as a means to educate consumers about nutrition. Labeling and consumers have come a long way in a remarkably short time.

Although labeling modifications to further inform consumers and affirm ingredients, whether simple such as quantity or complicated such as quality, are depicted as potentially inflammatory and burdensome on food distributors…I think we can probably handle it.

We have so far.

And honestly…food manufacturers and distributors can look to history for examples of how products survived ingredient PR nightmares and consumer sophistication.

After all, we still drink Coke, 7-Up, eat processed foods and all manner of stuff we’ve been told isn’t that healthy for us.

Get More Info — Because You Can Never Consume Too Many Learning Calories

Radium Girls
Check out the Radium Girls story on Stuff You Missed in History Class
10 Radioactive Products That People Actually Used
Coca-Cola History
7-Up History
7-Up Cake from the Country Cook 
Food Labeling Regulation: A Historical and Comparative Survey (don’t be intimidated, it’s fascinating, you can read it)

Julie Pippert is a long-time political wonk, with a deep and abiding fascination for history and economics, especially when it comes to policy that affects everyone everyday. By day, she is a marketing and communications strategist. In her spare time, between schlepping kids and running the rat race, she happily follows “where it all began” threads. And tries to explain Ikebana to anyone who will listen.

Author: Julie Pippert

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