The first sodas weren’t created to satisfy cravings. Rather, the first soda makers were concocting "health tonics" to cure ailments. Today's sodas have shifted quite a bit from this original classification. Now they're barely recognizable when compared to their original roots. For example: a traditional 12-ounce can of regular soda has over 39 grams of sugar. This exorbitant amount of sugar is at the center of many health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, and other conditions.
As soda started deviating from a healthy tonic to a sugar-laden beverage, consumers began having concerns about the health consequences of drinking this liquid candy. These first concerns started as early as 1942. It wasn't long until diet soda entered the scene as the newest "healthy" beverage to counteract these concerns. Join us as we dive into this history of diet soda, and why we're seeing a decline in diet soda today.
History of Diet Soda
Diet Sodas: The Beginning
The first ever diet soda, No-Cal, was created in 1952. The makers created this soda for people with diabetes and cardiovascular problems. No-Cal promised all the delicious taste of regular soda but without the sugar and calories. It did this by using cyclamate, an artificial sweetener accidentally discovered in a University of Illinois chemistry lab.1
Despite its early intentions, No-Cal quickly became immensely popular with dieters. The makers took note and embraced this new audience, pivoting from their original medically inclined foundation. By the 1960s, diet sodas and drinks were becoming increasingly popular. Following in No-Cal’s footsteps, a new diet soda hit the scene: Diet Rite. Like No-Cal, it also was originally intended as an option for consumers looking to limit their sugar intake. In fact, Diet Rite was first sold alongside medicines instead of other sodas and drinks. However, like No-Cal, Diet Rite promised a delicious flavor with zero calories and shifted its marketing approach due to the overwhelming interest of dieters nationwide.2
Coca-Cola Enters the Fray
The popularity and marketability of Diet Rite prompted Coca-Cola to create its version of a diet soda. Dubbed Project Alpha, Coca-Cola's first venture in the diet soda market was ambitious. They wanted a soda that had the same taste, mouthfeel, and consistency as regular Coke, but also appealed to women, their target market. The Atlanta-based company hoped to create an alluring and catchy name for its product. Initially, Coke executives didn't want to call their new diet soda Diet Coke. At the time, existing diet sodas had a reputation for tasting bad and Coke didn't want to associate themselves with a product that might hurt their outstanding brand.1
Using an early IBM mainframe computer, the Coke team came up with over 600 potential names with parameters that the name must be three to four letters without being offensive in any foreign language. Eventually, they settled on the name Tab and introduced it into the market with a series of ads that used the tagline, "How can just one calorie taste so good?"1
Although they had a portfolio of sodas that demonstrated their astute marketing instincts, Coca-Cola was at first hesitant and unsure how to handle their new diet drink. In their first year, Coca-Cola had a slim 10% of the diet market, which was a less than stellar performance for the number one soda company in the world.1
The Demand for "Diet" Drinks
In 1969, the FDA banned cyclamate sweetener, forcing Coke to reformulate Tab. After selecting saccharine as their primary sweetener, Coke faced another FDA hurdle when saccharine research revealed potentially dangerous side effects. As a result, Coke received a mandate to put warning labels on their Tab drinks. Regardless of the many hurdles they encountered, Coke still prospered. So much so that Tab was the number one diet soda through the 1970s and 1980s, revealing that regardless of the presence of unmistakably unhealthy ingredients, consumers still thirsted for a so-called “diet drink”.1
Following the success of Tab, Pepsi soon entered the scene embracing the 'diet drink' with their soda, Diet Pepsi. Armed with a series of celebrity endorsers, Pepsi proved that using the name 'diet' in their soda did not deter consumers.
As a result, in 1982, Diet Coke was finally released into the market. Despite Coke's original fears, Diet Coke was an instantaneous hit, and its release brought the slow demise of Tab.1 Diet Coke’s success prompted Coca-Cola to release many varieties of the diet drink; releasing caffeine-free Diet Coke and Cherry Diet Coke soon after. But today, Diet Coke sales have been in a very steady decline. Coke desperately needed a new drink to boost its sales, bringing about the latest diet soda: Coke Zero.3
Enter Zero Sugar Soda Varieties
The Coca-Cola Company launched its new brand, Coke Zero, in 2005. This new drink uses a mix of two artificial sweeteners: acesulfame potassium and aspartame. Coke Zero's launch also had a noteworthy marketing strategy, as its invention looked to appeal to young adult males. Globally, they marketed Coke Zero as a diet drink with zero calories. However in the United States, a different approach was necessary due to the stigma that diet drinks were only for girls.4
In their United States marketing approach, Coke stressed that Coke Zero flavor was more comparable in taste to Coke than Diet Coke. For their advertisements, Coca-Cola filmed real lawyers, telling them that Coca-Cola executives were suing colleagues for selling Coke Zero. Unaware of the scheme, these lawyers believed that Coca-Cola was initiating a lawsuit against themselves. In the ad, the lawyers argued that the case wasn't strong enough because the new soda tasted too much like the classic soft drink. Their punk'd style advertising campaign was a success, helping position the new drink as contemporary and young, effectively capturing the audience and interest of their young male target group.4
In creating these ads and removing the word “diet”, Coca-Cola sold diet drinks without explicitly saying they were diet drinks. Following Coca-Cola's Coke Zero debut, many companies followed suit, creating their own "zero sugar and calorie" versions. The making of these "zero" drinks—that are ultimately very similar if not the same as their 'diet' counterparts—signifies a transformation in consumer opinions on health.2
Diet Coke vs. Coke Zero
On its website, Coca-Cola explains the difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero. They say that both drinks are sugar-free and calorie-free. But Coke Zero sugar looks and tastes more like the original Coca‑Cola while Diet Coke has a different blend of flavors which gives it a lighter taste. By looking at the ingredients of the two soft drinks, the difference between the two beverages is minimal. By assessing the order of ingredients, Coke Zero has more phosphoric acid than Diet Coke, and arguably the main difference between the two sodas is that Diet Coke includes citric acid while Coke Zero has citrate and acesulfame, both acidity stabilizers with little difference between them.5
With more similarities between the two sodas than differences, one can argue that the only real difference is the name. In releasing Coke Zero, Coca-Cola cleverly ditched the word ‘diet’ to appeal to more consumers and attempt to speak to the rising interest in the health of the consumer. But ultimately, the two sodas are the same thing and it’s only a matter of time before consumers catch up.
Why Are Diet Sodas Disappearing? The Dawn of Functional Beverages
To summarize, soda has made a journey from health tonics to diet drinks to zero-sugar beverages. These "zero" sodas are zero calories, zero sugar, and also zero nutritional benefits. They have nothing in their ingredients that any health expert would deem good for you. Sometimes, less is just less. And when it comes to soda, zero health benefits just aren't cutting it anymore.
Today, we've entered a new era in the soda landscape: functional beverages. Consumers are no longer interested in a beverage that's simply lacking unhealthy ingredients. Now, consumers are craving beverages with benefits. In other words, functional beverages that offer some kind of health benefit or nutritional ingredient.
Instead of riding the tailwinds of zero nutrition, OLIPOP entered the scene to create a new kind of soda that addressed this need. OLIPOP is the culmination of over fifteen years of research and formulation experience. Our functional formula combines up-to-date microbiome and digestive health science with the knowledge of top researchers around the world. Sweetened with natural ingredients like cassava syrup, fruit, and stevia extract, our sodas contribute a whopping nine grams of fiber in every can. If soda drinkers swapped out the zero-benefits stuff for a can of OLIPOP each time, they'd add 7 pounds of fiber to their diet in just one year! Not to mention, it tastes delicious. Which leaves you wondering, what's the point of a diet soda anyway?
- LaBarre, Suzanne. “A Brief History of Tab, the Iconic Diet Soda That’s Headed to the Graveyard.” Fast Company, 30 Nov. 2020, https://www.fastcompany.com/90580210/a-brief-history-of-tab-the-iconic-diet-soda-thats-headed-to-the-graveyard.
- Wiener-Bronner, Danielle. “‘Diet’ Soda Is Disappearing from Store Shelves.” CNN, 14 Dec. 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/14/business-food/diet-soda-zero-sugar/index.html.
- Thompson, Derek. “Diet Coke’s Moment of Panic.” The Atlantic, 14 Jan. 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/01/diet-coke-new-can/550478/.
- Noel, Hayden. Basics Marketing 01: Consumer Behaviour. AVA Publishing, 2009.
- Haney, Stephanie. “What’s the Difference Between Diet Coke and Coke Zero Sugar?” POPSUGAR, 9 Mar. 2018, https://www.popsugar.com/fitness/What-Difference-Between-Diet-Coke-Coke-Zero-Sugar-44562315.
- Like regular soda, diet soda was also originally created as a “healthy” beverage.
- Diet sodas have shifted from their “health tonic” classification, and are now barely recognizable compared to their original roots.
- After journeying from health tonic to diet soda, we're now seeing a decline in the popularity of diet soda as consumers shift their interest to functional beverages.
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