Why don't you have two diet soda options on the menu?
Oh, my God. Life is not about diet soda, Harry.
Well, I beg to differ, but this is my good friend, Liz Furiati. She's the general manager of my favorite New York hangout, The Comedy Cellar.
The Comedy Cellar does foot the bill for your extravagance of cans of Diet A&W Cream Soda.
Now, why don't you get bottles of Diet A&W?
Because it doesn't exist. There's only the two liter and nobody likes two liter soda. Everybody likes cans. We all know the cans are superior.
It is true the cans are superior.
You see, diet soda makes me happy. It's a refreshing oasis for me. A light in the dark. Just a pure blast of goodness in my life. But we're living in the midst of a revolution. A soda coup d'etat, if you will.
We've obviously moved more towards instead of the diet, the more zero sugar options. And Coke Zero is a popular drink.
But it doesn't have a place on your gun.
Yeah. I don't know. Is it as necessary? Is it just -- I don't know. I never honestly, did I ever give it that much thought? No.
Because I don't like Coca-Cola. I like Diet Coke.
Now on this, Liz and I agree. I will always be on team "diet." Or is that team "zero sugar?".
Ten? I guess 20 years ago, who the hell had was no such thing as Coke Zero.
And now we're having that. You're at least taking the conversation at least somewhat seriously.
I am, because I do see it in the store.
And it's not just Coke Zero. To prove my point, I took a quick walk down the soda aisle at a local bodega. Sunkist Orange Zero Sugar. We keep going along here. It's Diet Pepsi, but then it's Zero Sugar Sprite. A&W, my brand, love A&W. They don't have the cream soda, which is what I like, but they do have the no sugar root beer. And guess what? It's zero sugar. Zero sugar ginger ale, Canada Dry. Is Diet Mountain Dew, but it's zero sugar 7up. But even in the non sodas, right? The Vitamin Water is zero sugar, the Powerade is zero sugar. If we walk our way down. the Gatorade here, look at that, zero, zero sugar. So if you look at the Snapple over here, this is freaking amazing. So you literally have the exact same drink right next to each other. You have Zero Sugar Snapple Tea, Raspberry Tea, Diet Snapple tea, Raspberry tea. It is infiltrating all of the different parts of the soft drink, whether it's carbonated, or not industry.
Now I know sometimes I can be a little dramatic, but folks, we are living through history here. And given the sales numbers when it comes to soda, well, any sea change on the scale of diet versus zero, well, it deserves some investigation. So today I want to figure out what happened to diet soda? And is there any meaningful difference between diet sodas and zero sugar sodas? Is any of this actually healthier than original formulas? I don't think what I'll find out today will change my mind on drinking this stuff, but I'm going to look at it anyway because frankly, I just love the topic. I'm Harry Enten and this is Margins of Error.
Diet Rite jingle
"Stay trim with Diet Rite. The cola taste that's bright. One calorie makes it right. For everybody..."
1958, when Diet Rite comes out, diet soda options comprise less than 1% of all soft drink sales. But those sales are going to skyrocket even before there are a lot of other options on the market. We're a couple of years early ahead of Weight Watchers coming out in 1963, but there's become a big shift. Dieting is becoming much more mainstream. So there are a lot of people interested in these products when they first come out.
This is Emily Contois. She's an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa and the author of "Diners, Dudes and Diets How Gender and Power Collide in Food, Media and Culture." And she's an expert on the history of diet soda.
It's at first, a medicinal beverage is for people with diabetes, other folks who need to limit their sugar intake. But it's immediately really popular with dieters.
Diet soda gets that designation because it uses artificial sweeteners in lieu of sugar. And like Emily said, diet soda quickly went from a more niche medicinal soda replacement to its own force in the marketplace. And this change happened very quickly.
1957, we're only moving 7.5 million cases of diet soda. By 1962, it's 50 million.
Take, for instance, the rapid rise of Diet Rite. Within 18 months of hitting the market, it had become the fourth best selling soda in the country, not just the fourth best selling diet soda, the fourth best selling soda period. And soon, well, everyone wanted in on the action.
Throughout the sixties, there are other brands coming out. Patio will become Diet Pepsi. Tab comes out, Fresca comes out. So from, you know, '62 to '67 is where pretty much everyone is trying to get in this game. There's so much money on the table. People are really excited about these products.
Fans of the show "Mad Men" probably remember Patio from that episode, which featured a jingle inspired by the musical "Bye Bye, Birdie.
"Bye bye sugar. Hello, Patio!".
Which somehow actually brings me to my next point. If you want to understand the history of diet soda, you have to look at how it was marketed.
So, Diet Rite goes after everyone in their advertising. It's not just for women, the way we sometimes think of Diet Coke today or what Tab will do when it comes out in '63. They go after mom, dad, the whole family. They also had really fun campaigns that were, you know, people will drink it who don't even need to lose weight. Right. They're going to drink it just because it tastes really good.
Diet Rite commercial
"You there, you ain't on a diet. Forget low calorie. Got to try it. Yes, sir, the taste is right for you. New Diet Rite. A diet cola so good even us non dieters drink it."
They just don't make them like they used to, huh? That's Boston Celtics star John Havlicek in w Diet Rite ad from the late 1960s. Even in this ad, you can already hear marketers grappling with the word diet. Oh, this Diet Rite? Well, it tastes so good, it doesn't even matter that it's a diet soda. However, other diet soda brands, well, they really leaned into the diet of it all.
Tab has a very infamous ad campaign: "Be a Mind Sticker:.
When you can't be with him, be in his mind. Be a mind sticker. When you can't be with him, be in his mind. Be a mind sticker with a shape he can't forget.
But in this, right, the whole idea is that your drink Tab you'll lose weight and that you will stick in his mind. Right? You will hold on to your man because you lost weight and you're thin and you're beautiful. And Tab is here to help you do that.
Cut to Tab sitting on the shelf of your local grocery store in a bright pink can. Actually, if I'm being real, I do have a few laying around my apartment still because as I've said, I'm obsessed with diet soda. Which sort of proves this point that in spite of that weird gendered marketing, diet soda remained a mainstay in the soda industry here in America. I mean, when Marty McFly goes back in time and the first "Back to the Future" film, he tries to order diet.
Marty McFly in Back to the Future
Yeah. Give me give me a Tab
Soda Jerk in Back to the Future
Tab? I can't give you a tab unless you order something.
Marty McFly in Back to the Future
All right. Give me a Pepsi free.
Soda Jerk in Back to the Future
You want a Pepsi, pal? You're going to pay for it.
Marty McFly in Back to the Future
Look, just give me something without any sugar in it, okay?
Honestly, it's hard to overstate how popular soda was at the time.
I think they count like 70s, 80s, 90s as like the cola wars. Right. Like particularly Coca Cola and Pepsi going back and forth. Back and forth. Right. Who's the best? Who tastes the best? Who sells the most? This idea that there should be cola dominance in this country isn't. That's another big moment in this history. Right? And so diet sodas are a part of that. And so even though Coca Cola has Tab, they have Project Alpha, right, running in the background to come up with Diet Coke. Right? Like that was a significant investment, took a lot of time. And so when that comes out in 1982, that is a big significant product lunch for Coca Cola. They're going for what's called the yuppie market by this sort of like white, affluent and health conscious folks. Right? Both men and women. That's how Coca Cola developed Diet Coke for. But like these other diet sodas, right, they come to be sort of feminized and understood as feminine. And so then we see the approach focus more on women.
In many ways diet soda made its own bed and then had to lie in it. Even in those ads from the sixties, it was clear that brands were trying to figure out what to do with the word diet. They could run from it and focus on things like taste, or they could embrace the diet. But by the early 2000s, diet began losing steam.
So diet, in the words of these advertising executives. Right? And become a four letter word, particularly among young men, right? Like diet meant women. It meant femininity. And in a derisive way, right? They're like, some men, at least the ones they're talking to, right, don't want to be a part of. But in addition to that, right, we get into a little bit of the theory of it. Right? Like diet is about lack. Diet's about restraint. Diet's about femininity in these like negative but also kind of painful ways.
So if you're trying to sell a diet soda, but you don't want to use the word diet, what do you do? How do you pivot? The answer is simple. Zero
Zero is empowered and full in like a value add, right? It's got zero sugar as a good thing instead of diet as this like pursuit of nothingness.
But as branding, zero goes beyond simply dropping the word diet.
And so I always joke that like Coke Zero is just like, oh, this is, un diet Diet Coke, right? Like that's what it is. But it's like, how do we provide a diet option for men that doesn't impinge upon their sense of masculinity, which for some of them, right, is a little bit fragile. And so zero is a way to broach that.
Like take Coke Zero, which launched in 2005. Listen to this ad
Coke Zero commercial
"It's not your fault you watch football all day. Man has always been captivated by watching stuff. So do what your brain was made to do. Watch stuff with real Coke taste and zero compromise, Coke Zero lets you enjoy everything."
Coke Zero was Coca-Cola's largest new product launch in 22 years. It was the biggest thing they did since Diet Coke. And so in 2009, when US soda sales are down about 2% across the board. Coke zero increases 20%, right? It has more than 17 straight quarters of double digit sales growth
And in many ways the age of zero has only just begun. But it's worth noting that for many drinks this is really just pure marketing. Coke Zero is actually one of the few exceptions because it uses a different blend of artificial sweeteners than Diet Coke, and thus it does taste different. But remember that walk down soda lane I took at the top of the episode? Most of those drinks, well, they're just diet soda. But someone scribbled out the word diet and wrote zero over it in big block letters. I wanted some more data on diet versus zero. So I got in touch with a colleague here at CNN and she sent me some of her research. Danielle Weiner-Bronner covers the food sector for CNN Business. And according to some stats she sent me, last year, Coke Zero outsold Diet Pepsi, making it the second most popular low calorie cola carbonate. As you might guess, Diet Coke is still numero uno. But from 2019 to 2021, Diet Cokes market share decreased by 3.3 percentage points, while Coke Zero was increased by three percentage points. And much like everything else we've discussed in the segment, a lot of that comes down to marketing and our current moment in which sugar has become a dirty word.
In 2015, Gallup polls indicated that soft drinks, diet and regular were two of only three foods that Americans were actively trying to avoid in their diets. And the third was sugar. There's just been this dramatic turn in how people conceive of what's healthy and where do things like soda and even diet soda, right, fit into their diets, Right.? In zero sugar. That sugar is what we are avoiding. Sugar is what is being eliminated. And then this idea that if we've done that, right, and this is a beverage that should be or could be a part of your diet, is this message that these companies want us to have.
So what's the deal with sugar and are diet sodas, sorry, I mean, zero sugar sodas healthier than their regular counterparts? I'll talk with the dietitian to find out. That's after the break.
Hey, folks, welcome back. So I've got to admit, soda is something I talk about a lot with my friends. As you can probably tell from my argument with Liz at the top of the episode. One frequent topic of debate: am I actually being healthier by drinking diet soda instead of regular? Now I. I've always argued that, yes, I am making a good decision for my health when I go diet instead of regular. But I figured that was a good time to actually ask an expert. So I called up Samantha Cassetty. She's a dietitian and the coauthor of the book "Sugar Shock." And when I sat down with her, well, I couldn't help but start with the big question.
So I'm of the belief that diet soda is a healthier option than regular soda, in large part because it ain't full of sugar. But is that belief ,on the broader level. that diet soda is a healthier option than regular soda? Do you think that's true or not?
All right. So this is going to annoy you, but it's nuanced. So broadly speaking, I would say that's probably true. Like, we know that excessive sugar is linked to all these problematic health outcomes: heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, etc., etc.. Alzheimer's, acne, like literally every body part gets affected. And so just taking a step back. replacing a sugary drink with a diet drink, yes. Is a healthy step in the right direction. But I would argue that it's maybe not the last step to take.
So one way I might phrase it and then I want to dig in a little more, is that diet sodas healthier than regular soda, but water is probably healthier than either one.
Bingo. I think like, without question, water, seltzer water, even unsweetened, un, you know, coffee and tea are healthy options.
There's a lot of freaking conflicting studies about the risks and effects of diet soda. Just hoping that you might be able to walk through some of those findings and explain what you think those results mean sort of together when you take sort of the aggregate.
Yeah. So I want to start out by saying that the FDA deems these substances safe. So at the bottom line, the FDA considers these things safe. Where there are questions, is certain studies that are called epidemiological studies. So they take people and check their diets over time and look at how their health is going. These types of studies have found a higher risk of heart disease, a higher risk of stroke, a higher risk of dying from any cause, a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, and a higher risk of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your cells no longer produce an adequate response to insulin, so your blood sugar starts to build up. It's considered sort of like the pre-diabetes phase. And so when you look at a study, those epidemiological studies, they can never prove cause and effect because they're not designed to do that. But when you start to see the evidence, sort of like all coming together with the same or similar outcomes, you have to say that this is raising a red flag, that they're doing something under the surface that is probably not so great for us.
These studies that Samantha is talking about, they typically compare people who drink higher amounts of diet sodas to those who either don't drink them at all or drink them a lot less often. So like twice per day versus less than once per week. Well, what about diet soda as a weight management tool? If you're consuming less sugar, isn't that a good thing that diet soda can help out with.
These substances don't do what people think they do. So people think, oh, I'm going to have a diet drink and it's going to help me manage my weight. And the data really does not show that. So some studies will show that it's helpful, but a lot of studies don't. And so, when they the last review I saw, which I've reviewed studies, when they sort of crunch the numbers from all sorts of different studies, found that they were not helpful in, you know, managing body weight. So that was sort of like the bottom line conclusion.
So I want to turn a little bit to something I've noticed, and that is the branding. Diet drinks, with the exception of maybe Diet Coke, seem to maybe Diet Pepsi seem to be going, "adios, amigos." That is, we're now finding zero drinks, you know, Coke Zero. Not that I have 36 cans of it downstairs or anything like that.
We might be visiting your office.
Maybe. Is there really a difference between the two of them, especially from, let's say, a health angle?
I mean, the answer is a hard no. There really is no difference. So sometimes there might be a different type of alternative sweetener. But no matter which type of sweetener is in there, the zero calorie sweeteners might not do what you think they do and might actually cause problems that you're trying to avoid. But we are really vulnerable to marketing, like we are so over the world diet in our country and for good reason. Like people are sick of having to manipulate their body to fit into like a typical fit body. And as I said before, it's really hard to manage body weight and body -- healthy bodies come in lots of different shapes and sizes. And we have not been so great at showing that in media.
All right. So I like the taste of soda. And I'm going to guess your answer on how much diet soda I should be drinking, should be zero. But let's just say. I can't be zero. How much, is like is there a line in which you're like, what the fudge? Like, you're you're basically putting yourself in jeopardy? Or is there, you know, moderation, moderation, moderation. Take it away. You could take it. I might have prejudged your answer, but I'm interested regardless.
Well, I mean, I would think about this in a number of ways. So how healthy are your other behavior? So like, are you eating lots of fruits and vegetables? Do you eat home more than you eat out? And by that I mean like preparing your own meals. Do you exercise? How is your blood sugar or your, you know, cholesterol levels, your blood pressure? You're like getting everything, checking all the boxes, and you're in pretty good health. I worry less about the artificial sweeteners. On the other hand, I like to think of your North Star goals. So like this is the direction you're heading in. And so I would say, you know, if you could get it down to like a couple of times a week, that would probably be safer than a couple of times a day.
I will admit, despite all the health advice, my talk with Samantha really got me wanting a soda. So I decided to call up the long time owner of a one-stop-shop for all things sodas and carbonated beverages. That's coming up after the break.
Folks. I got to be honest with you. Part of the reason I wanted to do an episode about diet soda is my love of it. But my true passion is for one diet soda in particular. See, my favorite soda in the world, which Liz mentioned briefly at the top of the episode. And the one I go bonkers for is A&W Diet Cream Soda. Though I guess I should call it A&W Cream Sod Zero Sugar because it was rebranded a couple years back. But perhaps even more importantly to me, A&W Cream Soda Zero Gugar is also a huge pain to find. It's the kind of thing where if I happen to find it on the shelf of a grocery store, that's probably going to be the highlight of my day. But mostly it's just the coyote chasing after the road runner. Remember my friend Liz Furiati? Well, she's kind enough to put some extra effort in to allow this coyote to catch the roadrunner once in a while by stocking A&W Cream Soda ZeroSsugar at the Comedy Cellar. All right, maybe it's a lot of effort.
I don't know if it's discontinued. I don't know if there only is one factory in the entire continental United States that is actually making this. Or if they're only making limited quantities for, like, two people, one of them being you. I have to search it on Google and Google Shopping and Amazon to find these these unicorns.
Now, if I recall correctly, when we were trying to originally purchase it, I was like trying to send it to like a soda supplier. Right?
And they don't carry them.
Nobody carries them. I've gone through soda suppliers. I've gone through my purveyors, I've gone through you name it. I've asked everyone and their mother and the only place I can find them is various places throughout the United States that will ship it to me via Amazon or the likes.
So as much as I love A& Cream Soda Zero Sugar, I've been toying with the idea of finding something that can replace it in my life, and I figured, well, I should call up a soda purist.
We have at least 800 different kinds of sodas at any one time. Oh, and like, for example, you know, I'm very particular about what I get. This Orangina, these come from France. This one is really good.
This is John Nece, owner of Galco's Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles. If you Google "soda store," they're, one of the top results and for good reason.
We have things that you're not going to find like this cucumber. This one actually won the soda of the year competition and we had it five years before anybody else had it. We have a lot of sodas and we have seasonals like the Christmas sodas. We still have -- that's Julmust and it's all of the syrup comes from Sweden.
Galco's is in many ways a bit of a unicorn too. For the past 20 plus years, they've specialized in carrying sodas and drinks from independent bottlers from all over the world. So if you walk into Galco's, there's a decent chance that you'll stumble upon something you'd never find anywhere else.
This one right here, the little bottle. And this was one of the first little bottles of Red Ribbons. And they have a pinpoint carbonator and pinpoint carbonations made with dry ice and it's infused into the water. So when you when you if you open the bottle, of their sodas and you dranks it and set it down and came back 4 hours later, it'll still have carbonation. It won't go flat.
At this point, I asked John about diet soda and whether he was seeing diet sodas popularity slip in real time.
We carry about 40 to 50 diet sodas for people who are drinking diet sodas and want diet sodas, they sell well. To everybody else, well, not really. I mean, I'd rather give you a lemon and or an orange and squeeze it in a bottle of this sparkling water.
Yeah. John's not really a big fan of diet soda, and this may surprise you, but the rebrand to Zero Sugar hasn't changed his mind either. Some of that, he says, is the sweeteners they use in diet sodas. But John also approaches soda differently than other people do.
Find an eight ounce bottle and you'll find a good soda. Okay. I mean, this idea of having soda with every meal and all of that, you know, I didn't I didn't do that. It was a treat. It was always a treat. It was always something that left you wanting more, never filling you up. That's it.
When we told John and the folks at Galco's about our episode, they graciously sent me some soda to try. Some diets, a zero sugar, ginger beer, even some sparkling yuzu. I'm told that's a Japanese citrus. And the goal was to find something that could replace A&W Cream Soda Zero Sugar in my diet, but sadly, nothing dethroned the A&W for me. And ultimately, John wasn't all that surprised because soda is one of those things, one of those rare things that can really do it for us on a deep personal level.
When you were small and you had a soda, it was probably the first one. And wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you'll remember that soda for the rest of your life, because it was something that was that was really good. And and I think people still -- I mean, I have people all the time coming in. I remember that soda. We pulled into a gas station on the way to Sequoia Park and they were still a nickel. And I'm going, oh, my goodness, you remember that? Yes, that was a long time ago. But they remembered it and they never forgot it. It made an impression. How many things do that?
You might be wondering why I have such an affinity for A&W Cream. The truth is, I don't really know. I do know what tastes like ice cream to me, which is really the only dessert I like. I also know I've loved it for many years. A ridiculous thing is that a friend made a documentary about me as a college project some years back. There was a whole section on my affinity for, you guessed it, A&W Cream Soda.
Harry in college
And then the one thing that defines me most, a nice 12 ounce 355 milliliter glass. Well, actually, not really glass, but a can of A&W Sparkling Vanilla Cream Soda. Ah, you will not find a better soda than this out in the market. And it's so rare. Everyone drinks their goddamn Mug Cream Soda, which tastes like horseshit. Meanwhile, this has the vanilla taste that everybody needs, and it keeps you up at night and just. Whew!
I call my affinity for A&W Cream Soda, the thing that defines me most. I don't know if this is exactly the same thing that John was getting at about childhood memories. But the fact is, the tastes we have as kids really do seem to stick with us as we grow into adulthood. More than that, I like to be a little off beat. There are a lot of people who like Coke. Many people who like Pepsi. There are those who love a root beer. And here in New York City, there are plenty of people who enjoy cream soda but go with Dr. Brown's. But can you think of anyone else who really loves A&W and cream soda? Specifically the diet variety. Oh, I'm sorry. I mean, zero sugar. To quote Cher from "Clueless," "I don't think so." Coming up on our next episode, America is one of only three countries in the world that hasn't made the switch over to the metric system. But we learned centimeters in kilograms in school. And in many ways, America's secretly more metric than you may have ever realized. Next time, a deep dove into the messy world of measurements in the United States. Margins of Error Is a production of CNN Audio Western Sound. Our showrunner is Cameron Kell. Our producer is Savannah Wright. Production assistance and fact checking by Nicole McNulty. Mischa Stanton is our mix engineer. Additional support from Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Dan Dzula, Alison Park and Alex McCall. Our executive producers are Ben Adair and Megan Marcus and me, well, I'm Harry Enten.