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Everybody knows that sugar-sweetened soft drinks, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, are the bane of fitness and good nutrition, but why weren't they for our grandparents?

My maternal grandfather, Albert Radford, was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1886 or 1888 (we're not really sure which). Like most boys of his era, he had a full four years of public school education, enough that he would later sit on his front porch and read the New York Times every Sunday morning, and enough that he could do the arithmetic and algebra required in a lumber yard. At the age of 10, my grandfather started working in lumber yards, a valuable worker because he could not only cut wood accurately, he could also calculate footage and costs.

Grandpa Radford lived long enough for me to remember him, although my younger brother never met him. He was affable and grandfatherly and loved to spoil small children (including, to my mother's distress, sharing a cigar with me when I was about two). He didn't have any teeth, but he wasn't especially overweight, certainly not by twenty-first century standards. That was probably because he had a coke addiction. My grandfather drank up to twelve Coca-Colas a day.

Why Didn't Soft Drinks Make Our Grandparents (And Great- And Great-Great-Grandparents) Fat?

In 2015, it is unfathomable that someone who drank a dozen colas a day, in the era before artificial sweeteners, would not be morbidly obese. However, up until 1963, with the introduction of the soft drink Tab, sweetened with saccharin, also a product of the Coca-Cola Company, no one in the USA drank sugar-free soft drinks. (Tab is still on the market in the US Virgin Islands and in Southern Africa.) However, in 1886, probably the year my grandfather was born, Coca-Cola was about to make a big splash in nearby Atlanta, Georgia.
 
Confederate general John Pemberton had been injured in the Civil War, and became addicted to morphine. He attempted to find a substitute for morphine in a safer, then legal substance, cocaine. 
 
Realizing that there were many people who were addicted to morphine, he marketed his mixture of cocaine and wine as a "French coca wine" in Atlanta, Georgia, until the city and county voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol. That was no problem for Pemberton. He simply reformulated his cocaine-laced beverage with fizzy mineral water, which was thought to have beneficial health effects, coca nut extract for a little caffeine, and sugar.
 
French coca wine was sold at drugstore counters for the heady price of five cents a glass. The newly released Coca-Cola, however, only cost a penny. In an era in which laborers earned less than $5 a week, even this was not especially cheap.

An Early Twentieth Century "Coke Habit"

My grandfather became a major afficionado of Coca-Cola. In fact, his "Coke habit," became an issue of contention between him and my grandmother. By the 1930's, when they had nine children and my grandfather was a foreman at the lumber yard earning $12 a week, he was spending 60 cents a day, one-quarter of the family's entire income, just on Coca-Cola. He consumed approximately 1200 calories of sugar a day just from Coke. However, considering that it was a six-mile (ten-kilometer) walk from their home in Hamburg, South Carolina to his job in Augusta, Georgia, and the job required lifting lumber all day, Grandpa didn't get fat. Maybe it was the cocaine in Coca-Cola?
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