Sweet Nothing—the Triumph Of Diet Soda

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Artificial sweeteners go back to 1878, when saccharin was discovered. While the expression saccharin-sweet has some modern currency, there are very few present-day opportunities to taste saccharin itself. The Encyclopedia of Chem ical Processing and Design notes that it “is sweet but this taste is accompanied by significant and metallic flavor attributes which are difficult to hide. Different proportions of the general population are sensitive to these bitter and metallic off-tastes with approximately one-third of individuals being quite sensitive.”

Cyclamates were discovered in 1937 by a scientist at the University of Illinois, but it took another 14 years before a cyclamate made its way to the supermarket, in No-Cal. “The FDA approved its commercial use in 1951, and it was marketed by Abbott Laboratories as Sucaryl,” writes Harvey Levenstein in his Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America . “Sales had climbed steadily during that decade, as [cylcamate] found its way into canned fruits, chewing gum, and even toothpastes. In the early 1960s, as weight-consciousness again began to sweep the nation, it became the key ingredient in a diet soda craze.”

However, the cyclamate-sweet honeymoon didn’t last long. Toward the end of the sixties studies began to come out suggesting that cyclamates could be linked to cancer in animals. The first warnings arrived relatively early, in 1964. A Wall Street Journal article reported that doctors were concerned that excessive cyclamate consumption might be linked to adverse health effects. But there was no mention yet of tumors or birth defects, and the doctors expressed themselves rather mildly. The diet soft-drink companies seemed unfazed. Royal Crown’s president, W. H. Glenn, said: “We have seen the letter [from the doctors]. It called for more research. There was nothing derogatory in it.” Coca-Cola’s response was equally casual.

T he years that followed brought intermittent reports of a connection between artificial sweeteners, particularly cyclamates, and effects on health. The major blows fell in 1969, when an FDA scientist announced on the “NBC Evening News” that chicken eggs injected with cyclamate led to deformed chicks, and the manufacturer of cyclamate revealed that rats given high doses had developed malignant bladder tumors.

In his history of the Coca-Cola Company, Mark Pendergrast suggests the latter study was partially funded by the sugar industry. Wherever the money for these studies came from, the damage was done, and only a few weeks later the FDA had taken cyclamates off its GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) list. The reaction of soda-industry executives was predictable, as Pendergrast’s perhaps overly sympathetic book reveals: “It didn’t matter that the rats had ingested fifty times the amount a human was likely to absorb. Coke’s Fred Dickson pointed out that an adult would have to drink 550 Frescas a day for the equivalent dosage. ‘You’d drown before you’d get cancer,’ he told a reporter. Another soft-drink executive noted bitterly that ‘under that law, you can ban sunshine.’ With sensational coverage in all the media, however, the country panicked. Cyclamates, virtually unheard of the week before, were suddenly the equivalent to poison. Even before the drinks were banned, The Coca-Cola Company started pulling Tab and Fresca from the shelves.”

For royal crown, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, the development was devastating, and they began looking for replacement sweeteners literally overnight. At Royal Crown, then based in Columbus, Georgia, company scientists learned of the ban on a Saturday and had a new formula ready by early Monday morning, with the first shipments of the reconstituted Diet Rite, made of sugar and saccharin, shipped out to bottlers on Wednesday. Pepsi, too, would follow this same recipe for its newly reformulated Diet Pepsi, while the Coca-Cola Company opted for a new Tab formula that used only saccharin as a sweetener.

This proved to be a happy move for Coke. Customers had grown too used to a no-calorie soda to regress to a half-calorie soda. Even though the new Tab had a metallic aftertaste, its fans were willing to put up with it. This was Tab’s shining, bubbly moment; the soft drink that had been the industry underdog pulled ahead of its competitors and stayed there.

Soon after, Royal Crown and Pepsico chose all-saccharin versions too, until concerns over saccharin prompted an industrywide shift to the newly discovered aspartame, marketed as the now well-known brand NutraSweet, in 1983. Diet Pepsi eventually regained its lost market share, but Diet Rite was left behind after the turmoil and has only in recent years begun to make a comeback, thanks to its pioneering use of newer artificial sweeteners.

During all this the sadly diminished No-Cal made an effort to recapture some of the market share it had lost long be-fore; Hyman Kirsch had been appointed a director of the Coca-Cola Company in 1960, but No-Cal had seen only limited success in the competitive atmosphere of the sixties. Nondiet sodas sensed an opportunity too: Canada Dry’s Wink boasted that it had never contained cyclamates to begin with, and the Buddha-like Kool-Aid Man sadly announced the demise of his pre-sweetened product (sweetened with cyclamates) but reminded customers that the original Kool-Aid was still available, delicious, and fruit-flavored. This was a very big industry by now, and it had the resources to re-cover quickly.