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.”

Diet Rite had not, as this article might have suggested, simply materialized on store shelves. The new cola had been the subject of vigorous research and marketing efforts, and although Diet Rite made its debut in Chicago, Royal Crown had begun a marketing test in Greenville, South Carolina, to find out how well the product would fare on a national level. The test was a resounding success. One person involved noted that “in Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet-Rite on their shelves.”

The company rolled out Diet Rite nationally in 1962, and it has been a mainstay of the industry ever since. Its importance in the soda world, and the world of American culture at large, cannot be overestimated. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” one writer notes, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier. Diet-Rite, in fact, revealed the high degree of diet consciousness in America, leading to an entire industry of diet foods and drinks, which has flourished in the 30 years since.”

In many ways Diet Rite owed its success not to what was different and new about it but rather to what was the same as other soft drinks. It tasted more or less like the original, nondiet version, thanks to the cyclamates that sweetened it. Moreover, Diet Rite looked like other sodas—it came in glass bottles that could be returned and exchanged—and the price was right, a nickel. Just a year and a half after its introduction, Diet Rite was the country’s fourth-best-selling cola, coming in after only Coke, Pepsi, and Royal Crown’s regular lines.

Diet rite’s advertising, too, was a change from No-Cal’s early campaign, and it helped set the stage for the future direction of the industry. “Of course, Diet-Rite comes on the scene when public interest in calorie-counting is booming,” states a 1962 ad, “[and] Diet-Rite is riding the boom… . But it’s the delicious flavor, says Diet-Rite, rather than the slenderizing properties, that makes the biggest hit with consumers. The bottler states that cola drinkers of all ages from kids to grownups make Diet-Rite a family favorite because it tastes good.” Diet Rite was already aware that diet soda’s appeal was not limited to those watching their weight.

In the early 1960s, alarmed by Diet-Rite’s increasing mar-ket share, Coca-Cola, long the largest soft-drink manufacturer in the United States, began its own diet-soda project. Clearly the time was ripe for Coca-Cola to enter the field; in 1962 The New York Times reported that “some 50,000,000 cases of low-calorie soft drinks were sold … accounting for a total outlay of $18,000,000.”

The effort became the source of fierce internal company debates. Paul Austin, the tenth president of Coca-Cola, a Harvardtrained lawyer and Olympic rower, set his researchers loose on a quest he named Project Alpha, to develop a product that would taste exactly like Coca-Cola but would avoid a diet-soda aftertaste. But for all the effort that went into the for-mulation of Coca-Cola’s new diet soft drink, more went into its naming and branding strategy. Only one executive in the company seems to have argued that the new product should be called Diet Coke; instead, most agreed that it should set itself apart from the Coca-Cola brand. After endless days of screening new names like Abzu, Zap, and Zuff, gener-ated by weary advertising executives and the Coca-Cola mainframe computer, the company settled on Tab, and chose the soon-to-be-famous slogan, “How can just one calorie taste so good?”

There was, naturally, a great deal of media excitement about Coca-Cola’s first attempt at a diet soft drink, even if the company had shied away from putting its name on the new “dietetic soda.” An article in the The New York Time s announcing the debut of Tab and competing diet drinks from Pepsi noted that the two companies were tapping into a market that had been created by “regional bottlers” and which before long they would take over almost completely. Tab appears to have been the first diet cola to advertise on television, and following Royal Crown’s lead, its ads emphasized taste as much as they did weight. Tab was also as much about a “lifestyle” of enjoyment and pleasure as it was about being thin, a message that Coca-Cola would eventually transplant to its nondiet soda divisions.

Pepsi’s contender was Patio Diet Cola. Patio was aimed squarely at women. Wrote one advertising-industry observer: “Pepsi-Cola Company is testing its new drink, Patio Diet Cola, in Greenville, S.C. [Diet Rite’s old proving ground], and seems to be beaming its campaign mainly at the feminine market. An actress named Debbie Drake has been signed to appear in a series of ads in which she will explain how women can maintain their figures through proper diet and exercise.”

While it is true that Patio Diet Cola was aimed primarily at women, it also fired one of the first shots in a war that would flare for decades: “All of the leading diet colas are practically alike,” Pepsi declared. “They look alike. They’re all sugar-free. And they all have but one tiny calorie to the glass. The only real difference is taste!” Clearly Pepsi too was ready to move Patio Diet Cola into a larger market.

But while sales of Tab and Patio ran neck and neck in the mid-sixties, both were losing out to Diet Rite. In 1995 a reporter named Glenn Vaughn looked back across 30 years to summarize the state of the struggle. “Viewing it as a trade-off with their lead beverage, Pepsi bottlers showed little enthusiasm for Patio Cola, so it never really went anywhere. Tab, too, limped along. Even after these two competitors got rolling, Diet Rite maintained as big a share of the diet-cola market as Tab and Patio combined.”

But a few years after the introduction of both Tab and Patio, Donald Kendall, a former syrup sales representative, became CEO of Pepsi-Cola, and made a decision that would change the diet-soda industry. Eschewing the common wisdom that diet sodas should be distanced from their more heavily caloried counterparts, Kendall rebranded Patio Diet Cola as Diet Pepsi in 1963, making his the first big soda company to give its diet line the same name as its flagship product.

After endless days of screening new names like Abzu, Zap, and Zuff, Coca-Cola settled on Tab.

In an interview with the industry journal Beverage World in 1998, Kendall said his decision had more to do with economic pragmatism than vision: “The facts were, we didn’t have enough money to advertise two different products… .The legal people, the research people, everybody thought this was a crazy idea. But we decided to go ahead and put it in a couple of markets. We put it in Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky, to test it. And I went out every weekend to Detroit and to Louis-ville to find out what was happening. You still had returnable bottles then, and when I saw those returnable bottles coming back by the load, I decided to run with it… .That way we could advertise it under one umbrella. It was so successful that Coke had to change from Tab to Diet Coke.”

In the meantime the success of diet sodas had not gone unnoticed by the sugar industry. In 1964 Diet Rite came out with an advertising campaign suggesting that the sugar industry was spreading false information about it. The ad contained an amazing sort of corporate poem, which suggests how important Diet Rite was becoming to its makers.

If it’s wrong to do millions of people a favor by taking the sugar out of cola … Diet-Rite pleads guilty. If it’s wrong to help relieve American families of worry about overweight (and things like that) … Diet-Rite Cola pleads guilty. If it’s wrong to bring you the best cola you’ve ever tasted and to do it without sugar … Diet-Rite pleads guilty. If it’s wrong to start a cola revolution that more and more families are joining each week … Diet-Rite pleads guilty. But judge for yourself. Taste-test sugar-free Diet-Rite against any other cola sugar-free or sugar-full You’ll find Diet-Rite Cola is winner by a mile. Maybe that’s why the sugar people are so nervous.

As much as the sugar industry may have fretted, there were also significant failures in the enemy camp: Not every diet soda flourished, and many have been more or less forgotten. The New York Times article that heralded the debut of Coke’s Tab and Pepsi’s Patio Diet Cola also announced, with equal fan-fare, the introduction, from the Hoffman Beverage Company, of “a new beverage known as LoLo Cola,” while mentioning, too, “Vernors 1-Calorie, Bubble-Up’s, Sugar-Free and products produced by Hines and other companies.” One column on new food reported glowingly of the unfortunate, and with any luck entirely forgotten, Coolo-Coolo: “The preparation of refreshing low-calorie fruit-flavored cold beverages is ever so easy with Coolo-Coolo, a pre-sweetened soft drink base being introduced in this area by the Standard Milling company. Coolo-Coolo comes in the form of a concentrated liquid sealed in heavy plastic envelopes and in four flavors—strawberry, orange, grape, and cherry. All you do is snip open the pouch of concentrate, combine it with water, and chill, and each packet makes a quart of flavorsome beverage.”

The existence of dozens of equally now-obscure offerings helps explain just how big the soda industry sensed the diet boom was becoming. For a while it appeared that any company with a beverage division and able to concoct a repetitive, meaningless name was ready to put out its own combination of cyclamates and carbonated water.

Some of the diet sodas introduced in this era stuck, however, and Coca-Cola created a number of them. Stung by his company’s tardy entrance into the diet soda world, Paul Austin launched several unequivocal successes. In 1965 the Wall Street Journal could write: “Coca-Cola is contending for the top spot in low-calorie beverage sales. This summer the company began test marketing its second entry in the field, a citrus-based drink called Fresca.” Fresca was marketed in the sixties—and has been ever since—as an adult soft drink, a companion to Smirnoff Vodka and Gordon’s gin. Coca-Cola clearly stated its goal in releasing Fresca: No mere “diet soda,” this was to be “a soft drink, a low-calorie beverage, and a mixer, all in one.”

But before the diet-soda world could become overconfident, it was badly shaken by a legal and medical decision about the very thing that made the new drinks possible.

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.

For anyone raised in the eighties and nineties, a soda landscape without Diet Coke seems incomplete, if not actually bizarre. But the current king of diet sodas did not enter the market until 1982, when, after a great deal of fanfare, the Coca Cola Company introduced Diet Coke. Laboratory workers referred to their highly researched newcomer as “Project Harvard.”

An article from the Times of Columbus, Georgia (Royal Crown’s hometown, but very close to the seat of the Coca-Cola empire in Atlanta), suggests Coke’s enthusiasm. The company spokesman, Joe Bowers, said: “‘Clearly we have great confidence in it and great expectations for it. We think it will be the most exciting and significant new soft drink introduction of the decade.’

“Bowers pointed out the low calorie segment of the soft drink market is growing ‘more than three times as fast as the overall market and we believe the introduction of diet Coke will ensure our leadership in it… .’

“He added, ‘Actually we feel diet Coke will speed that segment’s growth because it will attract regular soft drink consumers to its real cola taste.’”

Bowers’s final statement was anything but an afterthought. As at every step in the development of Diet Coke, which, incidentally, was and still is marketed with a lowercase d on the label to indicate “that its dietary qualities were secondary to its Coke-ness,” the concept of the product was carefully calculated by the company. Coca-Cola aimed to capture a male market and to rebrand Tab as a soft drink for women; the advertising of both products would reflect this. But Coca-Cola had also stumbled upon something important with Diet Coke: The Coke name had magic enough to overcome the difficulties of marketing a “diet” drink. “Many of the new consumers were attracted simply because of the magical brand name— Coke,” writes Pendergrast. “In labeled taste-tests, consumers preferred Tab to Pepsi by a slim margin, but when [Tab was dispensed] from a can marked ‘Diet Coke,’ the name alone swung the results twelve more points in Coca-Cola’s favor. In essence, the consumers were tasting the world’s best-known trademark, with goodwill built over a ninety-six-year history.”

Diet Coke did not come without its own problems, how-ever. Its sales seemed to be directly eating into those of regular Coke products and Tab. Nevertheless, one beverage analyst wrote that with its new line, Coca-Cola was “saying that the future is clearly in diet brands.” In the early eighties, when soft-drink sales were growing at an all-time low of 2.5 percent a year, diet soft-drink sales were growing at 8 percent.

Today’s diet soda marketers have almost completely forsaken the language of health and dieting.

In the struggle that followed, Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi as the world’s second-best-selling soft drink, diet and regular. Meanwhile, less became more in the industry during the eighties. At the same time Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke, Pepsi came out with Pepsi Free, a diet soda with no caffeine. The quest to contain less and less sometimes verged on the absurd. In 1985’s Back to the Future , when Michael J. Fox’s character, having traveled back in time 30 years, attempts to order a Pepsi Free, he is rudely awakened: “You want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it.” (Tab, for its part, was never really promoted after the saccharin scare until very recently, although it always has been produced, its pink cans patiently sought by connoisseurs.)

Today, almost 25 years after Diet Coke’s debut and half a century after Hyman Kirsch’s No-Cal, the industry giants are largely the same as in the 1980s. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have whittled away Diet Rite’s market share, and most of the other major diet sodas on the market today are owned by one of the two big soda companies or by Cadbury Schweppes, which manufactures Dr Pepper and 7UP.

What is perhaps significant, however, is how Coca-Cola, which once hesitated to put its name on a single diet soda, now spreads it across practically a dozen. There is Diet Coke, C2 (which contains about half the calories of regular Coca-Cola), Diet Caffeine Free Coke, Coca-Cola Zero, Diet Cherry Coke, Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke with Lime, and Diet Coke with Splenda (in addition to its international product, Coke Light). Coke also has introduced diet versions of a number of its popular subsidiary sodas, including Diet Barq’s root beer. Pepsi has stratified its diet-soda industry almost as much as Coca-Cola, having introduced Diet Pepsi Vanilla, Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi with Lime, Diet Pepsi Twist (lemon-flavored), and Pepsi ONE, along with diet versions of its subsidiary sodas, such as Diet Mountain Dew.

The new millennium brought with it two developments in the diet soda world, one predictable, the other maybe less so. Soda companies have slowly been turning away from aspartame in favor of newer sweeteners—most recently, sucralose, which goes by the more consumer-friendly name Splenda. Sucralose dates from 1976, when a researcher misunderstood the word test for taste during an experiment. It took 18 years for the sweetener to gain FDA approval, and after its introduction in 1999, it was initially marketed on diabetic Web sites before being pitched to a wider audience with the slogan “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” In 2000 Diet Rite became the first major soft drink to replace aspartame with sucralose, pre-empting Pepsi and Coke by several years and boosting its sales by 35 percent in 2004.

The second trend is harder to substantiate, but the media and public are slowly picking up on it. The era of the “diet” soda may be coming to an end. This is not because consumers are rejecting artificial sweeteners and diet sodas. On the contrary, diet-soda sales have become so strong that they threaten to eclipse, at least domestically, those of soda with sugar and calories. But in the past several years, soda names containing the word diet are being phased out in favor of names using the words zero or light . Diet Sprite is now called Diet Sprite Zero, and is poised to drop the Diet . A recent New York Times article confirms this trend is taking hold:

“The Pepsi-Cola Company division of PepsiCo last month changed the name of the diet version of its lemon-lime soda, Sierra Mist, to Sierra Mist Free. Both Sierra Mist Free and Diet Sprite Zero are being promoted in multimillion-dollar campaigns on television, in print, on posters and in stores… . The terms ‘free’ and ‘zero’ are intended mainly to help update perceptions of sugarless soft drinks, because research shows the word ‘diet’—which emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a more modern way to say ‘dietetic’—can carry unwanted baggage, par-ticularly among young-er men.

“‘There’s a language of “diet” that’s very unappealing,’ said Rony Zibara, executive creative director for North America at FutureBrand in New York, an agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies that specializes in corporate and brand identities. ‘The cues and signs of “diet” say “dated,”’ Mr. Zibara said. ‘No one wants to be seen walking down the street with a diet beverage in hand.’”

It seems likely that in the next decade or so, diet sodas will either (once again) be marketed as separate products altogether, in a Tab sort of vein, or overtake and replace their nondiet counterparts, so that it will become difficult or impossible to order a soft drink with calories and sugar. Even a somewhat health-conscious public, burned once by saccharin, twice by cyclamates, and a third time by aspartame, does not seem to have any interest in fighting diet sodas, and the industry’s marketing directors and advertising people are working hard to make sure that diet soda continues to increase its market share. Not even sturdy old chocolate Yoo-Hoo has been spared; now you can get Yoo-Hoo Lite, with 60 calories per eight-ounce serving.

Diet-beverage marketers have almost completely forsaken the original language of health and dieting. The Web sites for Coca-Cola Zero and Diet Pepsi recently celebrated the participants of masculine “extreme” sports. The Coca-Cola Zero marketing makes no overt references to its status as a diet soda; the Diet Pepsi Web page prominently displays athletic types, presumably more interested in gaining or maintaining weight than losing it.

A half-century after Hyman Kirsch developed a drink for patients in a Brooklyn sanitarium, the world of products he spawned is ubiquitous in our national life, and its effervescent history is a very American one, a pageant of American values and American marketing. From Kirsch and his No-Cal of the 1950s to E. Neville Isdell, chief executive of Coca-Cola in the new millennium, leaders of the ever-growing industry have made a systematic effort to read, influence, and then influence again the public’s perception of diet soda as being as good as “the real thing” and, indeed, as speedily replacing it.

What’s That Funny Taste?