When it first hit the market, Pepsi-Cola was pushed as much as an indigestion remedy as a soda. In fact, multiple advertisements from soda shops in the early 1900s claimed that it would cure a customer’s indigestion or it would be free.
It allegedly could do so because of its most prominent ingredient — pepsin. To that end, a 1902 advertisement that was developed with at least the blessing of Pepsi inventor Caleb Bradham referred to it directly as “Pepsi-Cola (The Pepsin Drink),” just in case that direct connection wasn’t obvious from the name itself. Other ads were more explicit about it being a dyspepsia cure.
That said, it had other ingredients, too — e.g., acid phosphates, special oils and the juices of fresh fruits. And so, when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, Pepsi tried to have it both ways — and get one up on its coked-up competitor Coca-Cola in the process — by referring to itself as “The Original Pure Food Drink.”
But did the pepsin in Pepsi really cure dyspepsia?
A better (and more surprising) question is, “Did Pepsi actually contain pepsin in the first place?” Several authoritative sources will tell you outright that Pepsi never did, including the official website of the Original Pepsi Store in New Bern, North Carolina, and The Encyclopedia of Pepsi-Cola Collectibles. Other sources have attributed the belief that Pepsi once contained pepsin to “hearsay.”
Honestly, though, it seems a lot more like a bold-faced lie:
What is pepsin anyway?
The commercial version of pepsin is isolated and extracted from the stomachs of hogs, or pigs. Historically speaking, it was the very first enzyme to be isolated from animal tissue. While the original sellers of pepsin products marketed them as a digestive marvel, they appear to have danced around its point of origin, frequently using statements like, “It’s also found in the stomach of animals, like the ox, calf, etc.” The “etc.” is clearly a placeholder for where the pepsin actually originated — a hog’s stomach, which is a location that members of certain swine-averse religions definitely would have avoided.
Specifically, pepsin helps the body to break down protein so that it can be more easily absorbed by the small intestine. Since pepsin is an enzyme already produced in the human stomach, most people wouldn’t need additional pepsin in order to break down the protein entering their bodies. Even with modern pepsin supplements and medications, patients will be advised to only take them with a protein, and to never take them on an empty stomach.
Supplements containing anywhere from 20 to 700 milligrams of various concentrations of pepsin are often recommended. How that translates into the “teaspoonful (of the) essence (of) pepsin” that every glass of original Pepsi-Cola was said to contain is a mystery. We can’t know if that amount was far too much, far too little or just right. (Regardless of the dosage, Pepsi would now be committing the modern equivalent of medical malpractice if it failed to arrive with an admonishment to only consume it on a stomach full of protein.)
Two of the telltale signs that you might be in need of a digestion aid on the level of pepsin would be indigestion and diarrhea. Coincidentally, two of the reliable signs that you’ve been supplementing with too much pepsin also include indigestion and diarrhea. Therefore, the habitual use of a pepsin-laced soda might eventually end up curing and then reigniting the sort of dyspepsia it was intended to combat in the first place.
So if there was no pepsin in Pepsi, does that mean it couldn’t fix indigestion?
It probably could have, depending on the root cause of the indigestion. Modern research has at least very strongly suggested that carbonated water on its own is capable of improving swallowing ability, increasing bowel movement frequency and alleviating constipation symptoms. However, if these benefits hold up under closer scrutiny, they’d also apply to the drinkers of all carbonated beverages, not just Pepsi fans. It also has nothing to do with pepsin.
Some of Pepsi’s other early claims — that it “tones the liver, thereby purifying the blood,” and is “proven by actual test to be one of the greatest milk producers for mothers on the market” — are such bullshit they’re not even worth interrogating.
Now, if for some reason Pepsi still contains pepsin, the company would certainly be required to disclose it on the packaging (which it doesn’t). For now, though, I want to know what the statute of limitations is on the free Pepsis those drug stores were promising to dissatisfied customers. Because I think I feel my tummy rumbling.