Picture of an empty glass of soda

10 min read

Why is Diet Soda Disappearing?

Diet Sodas: The Beginning


The first sodas weren’t created to satisfy cravings; instead, they were concocted and marketed as “health tonics” to cure ailments. Today’s sodas have shifted from their “health tonic” classification, and are now 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 the cause of many health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, and other conditions.


Like regular soda, diet soda was also originally created as a “healthy” beverage.


After soda started deviated from being a healthy tonic to becoming a sugar-laden beverage (which you can read all about here), consumers began having concerns about the health consequences of drinking this liquid candy as early as 1942. As a result, the first diet soda, No-Cal, was created in 1952, intended for people with diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Using cyclamate, an artificial sweetener accidentally discovered in a University of Illinois chemistry lab, No-Cal promised all of the delicious taste of regular soda without the sugar and calories.1


Despite its early intentions, No-Cal quickly became immensely popular with dieters, and thus the makers pivoted from their medically inclined foundation and began marketing the soda to dieters. By the 1960s, diet sodas and drinks were becoming increasingly popular, and following in No-Cal’s footsteps, Diet Rite was created and originally, was also 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 their product, as initially, Coke executives did not want to call their new diet soda Diet Coke because existing diet sodas were assumed to not taste good, and Coca-Cola did not 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


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, and Coke was mandated 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 onto 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, with Coke desperately needing a new drink to boost their sales, and thus, Coke Zero was invented.3


Enter Zero Sugar Soda Varieties


The Coca-Cola Company launched its new brand, Coke Zero, in 2005. The new drink was sweetened with a mix of acesulfame potassium and aspartame, a key ingredient in Diet Coke.


Coke Zero's launch had a noteworthy marketing strategy, as its invention was meant to appeal to young adult males. While globally, Coke Zero was marketed as a diet drink with zero calories, in the United States, a different approach was necessary due to the stigma that diet drinks had as being associated only with girls.4


In their United States marketing approach, Coke stressed that Coke Zero flavor was more comparable in taste to Coke than Diet Coke. Using advertisements based on the premise that Coca-Cola executives were suing colleagues for selling Coke Zero, Coca Cola taped real lawyers, unaware of the scheme and taping, as they faked initiating a lawsuit against themselves. Claiming the new soda tasted too much like the classic soft drink, lawyers argued that the case would be dismissed and the executives would be humiliated. The campaign was a success, and helped position the new drink as contemporary and young, with their Punk'd style advertising effectively capturing the attention and interest of the young male target group.4


Ultimately, 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.5


Diet Coke versus Coke Zero

On their website, Coca-Cola explains the difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero: "Both drinks are sugar free and calorie free. Coca‑Cola zero sugar looks and tastes more like 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.6


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.


Enter: OLIPOP – not Diet, not Zero. BETTER.

Sometimes, less is just less. And when it comes to certain sodas, zero health benefits just isn't enough. While Coke Zero and many other “zero” sodas are a zero-calorie, zero-sugar cola sweetened with aspartame and acesulfame K, they have nothing in their ingredients that any health expert would deem to be good for you. On the other hand, 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. Results from our in-vitro studies, conducted with Purdue University and Baylor College of Medicine, revealed OLIPOP's ability to increase diversity, promote good bacteria, and facilitate short-chain fatty acid production in the microbiome.


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 over the course of just one year, and therefore support their overall health in a natural and delicious way.


Sources

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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/.
  4. Noel, Hayden. Basics Marketing 01: Consumer Behaviour. AVA Publishing, 2009.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Cheat Sheet
  • Like regular soda, diet soda was also originally created as a “healthy” beverage.
  • Today’s sodas have shifted from their “health tonic” classification, and are now barely recognizable when compared to their original roots.
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