Sweet Nothing—the Triumph Of Diet Soda

PrintPrintEmailEmailIt is probably fair to say that Hyman Kirsch, 50 years dead, his once powerful beverage company now a shadow of its former fizzy self, could not have imagined the ways in which his No-Cal soda would change the world. Kirsch was gone before Diet Coke hit supermarket shelves everywhere; he never heard “Tab, Tab cola, for beautiful people” or drank a diet soda “just for the taste of it.” But his legacy is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business and has created a nation full of consumers thirsty for the latest liquid nothing.

Diet soda has grown from a footnote to the American carbonated-beverage industry to its flagship product, many billions of dollars away from the Kirsch Bever-ages warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Diet soda stands at the center of America’s passion for soft drinks. Studies suggesting the toxic nature of its many sweeteners, lackluster advertising, and an increased health consciousness in the United States have done little to stop its growth. Even the fact that consumers are paying for nothing but chemicals has not put a dent in diet soda’s apparently indestructible can.

What, then, does all this carbonated nothing add up to? At its heart the diet-soda industry reflects a larger American story—a wealthy and increasingly populous nation that is willing to pay for an edible product that does not offer even calories as a benefit. And it is also the story of what is perhaps the strongest marketing campaign ever, and how the very American institution of carbonated sugar water has transformed itself in the past 50 years and is poised to take a very different direction in the next 50.

The Jewish Sanitarium for Chronic Disease in Brooklyn does not sound like the incubator of an international product, yet this modest hospital at 585 Schenectady Avenue (now the Kingsbrook Jewish Medi-cal Center) is the ancestral motherland of Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Fresca, and so many others. In 1951 Hyman Kirsch, a Russian immigrant from Simferopol, was elected to the vice presidency of the sanitarium he had founded. In 1904 Kirsch Beverages (the name comes from the German and Yiddish for “cherry”) had prospered with Kirsch Real Fruit Black Cherry Soda and Kirsch Real Fruit Flavored Tee Up Lemon Soda, the latter poetically flavored “with a breath of lime.” The hospital had become something of a force in Brooklyn’s Jewish cultural life, and both it and Kirsch Beverages sponsored Yiddish radio dramas.

In 1952, Hyman, along with his son Morris, hoping to provide some sweet relief to patients hospitalized with diabetes and cardiovascular problems, used their expertise as soda manufacturers to create No-Cal, which originally came in two flavors, ginger ale and black cherry. The operation started modestly. As a 1953 New York Times article tells it, the Kirsches “got together in their own laboratories with Dr. S. S. Epstein, their research man, and explored the field of synthetic sweeteners. Saccharin and other chemical sweeteners left a metallic aftertaste. Then, from a commercial laboratory, they got cyclamate calcium, and No-Cal was accepted by the diabetic and those with cardiovascular illnesses who could not tolerate salts in the sanitarium.”

No-Cal had the good fortune to arrive at a time when Americans were becoming health conscious.

Realizing that these patients were a rather limited market for what proved to be a relatively palatable soft drink, Hyman and Morris brought their product back to the Kirsch plant in College Point, New York, where they diversified into more marketable soda flavors, including chocolate, root beer, and Kirsch’s namesake, cherry. By 1953, mere months after the world’s first diet soda had gone into production, No-Cal was grossing between five and six million dollars a year and came in seven flavors. No-Cal’s success was essentially regional; the Times story speaks rather quaintly about Morris and Hyman’s ambitions, noting that “a letter from a hostess on Northwest Orient Airlines” who wondered why a passenger couldn’t get No-Cal in Minnesota had prompted the father-and-son team to think about national expansion.

Older readers of this article may remember the product or, more likely, Kim Novak shilling for it in print advertisements, one of the first of many celebrities using their influence to sell carbonated chemicals. From the sftart the Kirsches marketed No-Cal directly to women, and while taste is certainly mentioned in their ads, the focus was clearly on a trim figure.

No-Cal arrived at a time when American consumers were beginning to develop health consciousness. It is at this moment in history that we see the first diet products, solid as well as liquid.

Nine years after No-Cal’s debut, Chicago responded to Brooklyn’s no-calorie challenge with its own diet soft drink, and it was this one that forced the big companies in the soft-drinks world to take note. In 1961 the Chicago Daily Tribune carried an announcement of the debut of Diet Rite Cola, which, though initially slated for local distribution, would eventually make its way around the country.

“A new cola drink which will be especially welcome to weight watchers is Diet Rite Cola, being distributed in the Chicago area by the Royal Crown Cola company. Available in half quart bottles and packaged six bottles to each economically priced carton, this pleasantly refreshing soft drink has a real cola flavor. Best of all, it has fewer than 3 calories per bottle, which means only a single calorie in each average serving! You’ll find colorful cartons of this newcomer in the soft drink section of your favorite food store.”