Diet Coke: the “world’s liquid crack of choice”

I believe it was British actor/author Joan Collins who once said that she doesn’t drink diet soda “because you never see skinny people drinking it!”  Think about that truism for a moment.  Ever since I read that, I’ve undertaken my own small and non-scientific observational study of my own, and I have to say that Joan may be on to something. Lots of people, however, are indeed drinking the stuff, both fat and skinny alike: Diet Coke is now the #2 top-selling soft drink in the world by volume, second only to regular Coke, and – surprisingly! – ahead of regular Pepsi (formerly in #2 place worldwide). The Guardian’s Katie Baker once referred to Diet Coke as “the world’s liquid crack of choice”.   

Advertising Age described how beating out Pepsi happened:

“Pepsi blinked. Its flagship, the perennial #2 to brand Coke, dropped to the #3 slot as it was surpassed by Diet Coke. As a result, for the first time in two decades, PepsiCo ceded the soft-drink category’s two leading share positions to its legendary rival.”

This historic shift, as Ad Age called it, was a phenomenon in the world of diet soda marketing.

Last month, London nutritionist Anne-France Rix spoke to The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley about this unique appeal of Diet Coke.

“Finally, at 30 years old, Diet Coke’s wish has come true – people are drinking it just for the taste, as 40% of colas sold are now either Diet Coke or Coke Zero.”

She also attributes the brand’s phenomenal growth to these two “genius moves“:

  • Diet Coke changed its name from TaB (the name of the Coke diet-variant since 1963) which contained  saccharin as a sugar substitute.
  • Coca-Cola Company purchased Columbia Pictures in 1983 as champions of product placement, guaranteeing that movie actors would be chugging Coke – and then Diet Coke – onscreen for decades to come.

It doesn’t hurt that Coca-Cola’s advertising for both Coke and Diet Coke is handled by Portland’s Wieden & Kennedy, the ad agency responsible for marketing other iconic brands from Nike to Procter & Gamble.

The number of North American children now consuming diet soft drinks has doubled in just the past decade. In 1998, only 6% of kids drank diet cola, but by 2008, that percentage rose to 12.5. About 25% of adults now consume diet beverages like Diet Coke.

Diet Coke made its marketing debut back in 1982, the fitness-crazy year that Jane Fonda released her first workout video. A New York Times article declared:

“Hollywood has a new ‘in’ drink. At cocktail parties and premieres, Perrier has given way to Diet Coke as the drink of choice.”

Over the years, Son-of-Diet Coke variations were also introduced: in 2001, the Coca-Cola Company introduced Diet Coke With Lemon. Shortly after, it released Diet Vanilla Coke (2002), Diet Coke with Lime (2004), Diet Coke with Splenda (2005), Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke (2006), and Diet Coke Plus (2007).

Some of Diet Coke’s flavours failed, like Diet Coke with Lemon, which some consumers criticized for tasting vaguely like Lemon Pledge furniture polish. It was, mercifully, phased out in 2005.

Others have been intensely popular, like Diet Coke with Lime (I have to say, my own personal favourite).

The only problem with the whole “diet” name is that, from a marketing perspective, it locks the drink pretty firmly to one gender. Enter Coke Zero – introduced in 2005 in its distinctive black – and unisex – label. It’s also sweetened with a blend of low-calorie sweeteners instead of Diet Coke’s aspartame. It has found a strong target market so far, and has not seemed to cannibalize Diet Coke sales.

There have been rumblings that people who drink a lot of diet soda (not Diet Coke in particular) have paradoxically larger waist circumferences, but these studies suggest association, not causation. None so far prove cause and effect. See Joan Collins’ quote.

However, there are other health scares which, if true, would be much more troubling. Aspartame, the magic ingredient in Diet Coke and most other diet soft drinks that makes them taste sweet, has been investigated as a possible cause of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, fertility problems and many other things that ail you, but at the moment there are few if any definitive results.

Dr. Steven Novella writing in Science-Based Medicine, for example, cites a published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of aspartame studies, which concluded (as did multiple reviews going back to 1985):*

“The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener.

“There is no pattern of evidence to suggest that aspartame causes cancer, autoimmune disease, neurological disease, diabetes, or anything else its critics claim.

“A conspiracy to hide the risks of aspartame, however, remains a popular internet urban legend that will likely not disappear anytime soon.”

There are, however, some general recommendations from those who are charged with monitoring public health: you shouldn’t drink more than 18 cans of aspartame-containing drink a day, warned one such agency.

But let’s face it, if you’re drinking 18 cans of anything every day, you have far bigger problems in life than what that aspartame may or may not be doing to your body.

As nutritionist Rix quips:

“In the absence of any damning evidence, Diet Coke now occupies that twilight zone – along with dairy, wheat and Snack-a-Jacks.

“There’s nothing actively wrong with them, but if you feel your body is a temple, you won’t let them in it.”

* Magnuson BA, “Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies.”  Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 2007;37(8):629-727.


Q: Are you a Diet Coke drinker? Why or why not?


13 thoughts on “Diet Coke: the “world’s liquid crack of choice”

  1. “About 25% of adults now consume diet beverages like Diet Coke.”
    To me this statement is leaving out the obvious line that should read “75% of people do not consume ‘diet’ sodas of any kind.”

    Count me in the 75% who will not drink, or eat, anything ‘diet’.
    Oddly enough- and I seem to be in a minority- I will also not consume anything that is ‘low fat’ or ‘no fat’ or ‘reduced fat’.

    By the way, I am of normal height at 5’9″- And normal/appropriate weight for my height at 140-145. Save for when I was pregnant, gaining exactly 32 pounds with each healthy pregnancy – 4, I have always maintained that weight.

    I am 54. I consume at least one bottle of regular Pepsi every day. I have never had to diet.

    The magic is zero, but the ‘key’ is simple. People need to expend as many calories, as ENERGY USAGE, as they consume each day.

    “Diet” anything will not move their backsides off the couch and out the door…

    • Thanks for your perspective, Annie. Perhaps that “diet” label confers an inaccurate sense of good decision-making given the anti-sugar movement?

      • Miss Carolyn;
        Thank you for your own reply.

        I am also in a minority when it comes to being anti-sugar. I do not overindulge this, much the same way as I try not to overindulge [in] anything.

        I still believe our own bodies are able to handle pure sugar, however diluted, better than any of its relatives or ‘competitors’.
        I also love honey! (Oops, even as I sniff my nose due to Fall allergies).

        I will probably get reprimanded for this next remark, but I also believe that saccharin should have been left alone. I have not read a whole lot better about any of its successors, no matter their perceived improvement or ‘taste’ to some.

        A little of my personal history… I was born/raised on a dairy farm. Perhaps it is that upbringing (along with the diet and exercise) that has formed/cemented many of my beliefs. I try to make no apologies for this. My parents [adoptive] are both deceased. Daddy died of an aneurysm, which is a birth defect. Mama of ‘hardening of the arteries’, which seemed to run in her Upper Michigan family. Mama was a bonafide “health nut” long before it was cool to be such. She also firmly believed in moderation, (and little/no alcohol).

        We always had a huge garden. Between the cattle, the “dairy” foods, and the garden, we ate almost no store-bought foods; but still ate very well. None of us were fat.

        My sincere apologies for being overlong in my reply…

    • Funny you should say this – just today I brewed a big pot of lemon herbal tea (with a bit of peppermint tea tossed in), let it cool, added ice and some lemon slices and mint sprigs = yummy homemade iced tea with nothing else added.

    • Investgator25;
      This water with lemon added is an excellent way to start the day.
      No matter the water temp, though crispy-cold works best, this is an excellent wake-me-up for our mouth and gut; and good cleansing for your digestive tract first thing in the morning.
      Since I received Reclast, I am unable to use this on an empty stomach every day. (Odd that). But I find that it actually hurts!

      Thank you for the reminder! I will try it again. (Baby steps this time; I will start with just a small amount of lemon on my tongue and use tepid/room temperature water).

  2. I have been a confirmed (diet) coca cola lover all my life and am proud to say so. I think pretty much anything, whether it be coke, diet coke, vodka, whatever, can be just fine in moderation (as Socrates once said, “nothing in excess”).

    I drink lime diet coke most days, and I love coke slurpees as a special treat now and then. When I was in medical school, I discovered that syrup of coca-cola was a better anti-emetic (anti-nausea) than gravol or other drugs. My fellow students didn’t believe me until the Medical Letter came out with an article (this was in the early 70’s) confirming my findings. I had been having gall bladder attacks and coca cola was the ONLY thing that helped my nausea and to this day, it still works just fine for me and friends and family as an anti-nauseant.

    But I drink it because I like it. Nay, I love it. And I am proud to say that. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a coke or a diet coke, again, in moderation. There are a lot worse things out there. Coke is it, for me.

    • Hi again Dr. Ruth – nice to hear from you. I’ll have to remember that coke cure for nausea next time I need one. And coke slurpees? – now those I haven’t tried yet!

    • Dr. Ruth;
      I absolutely agree that there are many ‘worse’ things out there. And I know I should not even have the one soda a day- I have osteoporosis.

      I an unable to drink coffee, even though it is worlds better for me; but like I said I do try to always eat decent.

      I am wondering where to purchase the plain but flavored syrup you use as anti-emetic? (And how much did you use)?
      Curious too- Perhaps this is why the docs told me when my children were young to actually give them warmish flat soda when their tummies were off. I have never seen it as an item for ‘sale’.

      With 4 daughters that excelled in school, I never kept soda as a staple at home; although for a treat on Sundays- usually a root beer float was chosen, and it was a very big deal. (I was not an ignorant mother though, and I lay no claim to boast that they never bought soda for themselves here and there).

  3. I’ve always viewed my diet coke addiction as the better of a bad situation. I love the occasional junk food, and I love my soda. Unfortunately in 2002 when I hit 300 pounds (at 6’4″) I knew I needed to change. The only major change was switching from Coke to Diet Coke.

    This one change reduced my calorie intake dramatically, and combined with portion control with my food intake I managed to lose over 60 pounds.

    The reality is, I love soda, and I’m going to drink it. I might as well drink one that doesn’t add calories to my diet. I’m under no illusion that it’s “healthy” but it is definitely less unhealthy than the alternative.

    • Thanks for bringing up this valid point, Brian. I raised a very similar point last February when replying to this blog post about diet cola by cardiologist Dr. John Mandrola: “Medical leaders can ‘aggressively advocate’ all they want about the need to stop consuming junk foods like diet soda, but for these 2,500 older study subjects, their belief may actually be that this is indeed a ‘healthier’ alternative to what they really want – which is real Coke! And if you’re talking about the ‘obesity epidemic’, these patients no doubt feel like they ARE on the right track with their 0-calorie sodas.”

  4. To answer the question about syrup of coca cola for nausea – there is no “special” syrup – it is just a coca cola. And I find it works much better over ice. Seems to change the fizz that way.

    So for nausea, just a regular coca cola (diet coke does not work the same and I am not sure why – something about the formula for the syrup), poured over an ice cube. Could be flat or not, doesn’t seem to matter, but if you are really nauseated, sometimes flat coca cola on ice is more palatable.

    Weird, but it really works. Even though I don’t regularly drink coca cola and prefer lime diet coke, I always keep coca cola in the house in case of nausea.

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