By Harry Enten, CNN
About a year ago or so, I was hanging out at my favorite haunt in New York. I’m such a regular that the staff kept my favorite soda, which is often very difficult to find in a can, on hand for me. (Seriously, there are pictures of me drinking it online.)
I ordered my Diet A&W Cream Soda, and I quickly realized something was different. My “diet” soda was no longer diet. Instead, it had become “zero sugar.”
Just what the heck was going on? I had to know because diet soda is my everything. It’s one of the few things in life I truly enjoy, and I know many of you love diet soda as well. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry.
This week, I took my podcast Margins of Error in a thirst-quenching direction to try to solve this marketing mystery and see if I should actually be drinking any of this stuff.
I soon realized A&W wasn’t some aberration. It was part of a trend.
Just take a trip down your local grocery store aisle as I did, and you’ll find that diet soda is disappearing. Brands such as Canada Dry and Crush have replaced their diet sodas with “zero sugar,” while others such as Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper now have zero sugar options in addition to diet.
It all comes down to business. I spoke with Emily Contois, who wrote “Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture,” and she told me the word “diet” has become a four-letter word. Diet has been associated by some — specifically young men — with “femininity, and in a derisive way,” said Contois, an assistant professor of media studies at The University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.
On top of that, Contois told me that “diet is about lack, diet’s about restraint, diet’s about femininity in these negative, but also kind of painful ways.”
It turns out this isn’t a new problem for low-calorie soda makers. Low-calorie soda, also called “diet” or “zero sugar,” has been around for 70 years, and how to promote it has always been a tricky thing.
Do you lean full into the idea of a diet, or do you lean into the idea of being healthier by cutting sugar without losing taste?
There were once a slew of different low-calorie drinks — Diet Rite, Tab, Patio, Diet Pepsi and much later on, Diet Coke — in the early days, and they went with different marketing strategies.
In this Diet Rite ad from around 1969, Boston Celtics star John Havlicek emphasizes the drink is for those who “ain’t on a diet.”
On the other hand, Tab told its customers to “be a Mind-sticker … with a shape he can’t forget” in this 1960s ad.
Flash forward to the 2000s, when the business of low-calorie soda was looking pretty bleak at the beginning of the current century. Diet soda sales were slouching. Marketing ultimately comes down to what is working businesswise, and it was clearly time to move away from diet.
Welcome to the land of “zero sugar” sodas. Contois argued that from a marketing perspective, “zero is empowered and full and a value add. It’s got zero sugar as a good thing instead of diet as this pursuit of nothingness.”
Guess what? It seems to be working. Low-calorie soda sales are rising, and a big part of that seems to be the zero sugar phenomenon.
Coke Zero outsold Diet Pepsi last year, according to statistics from my colleague Danielle Wiener-Bronner, who covers the food sector for CNN Business. This made it the second most popular “low-calorie cola carbonate.”
As you might have guessed, Diet Coke is still in first place. Still, from 2019 to 2021, Diet Coke’s market share decreased by 3.3 percentage points, while Coke Zero’s increased by 3 percentage points.
Of course, I was left with the question of whether this low-calorie stuff is better for you than the regular versions. The good news is that most experts agree that beverages sweetened without sugar can lead to better short-term outcomes than beverages with sugar, as you can see from this recent meta-study CNN previously reported.
But you should listen to the podcast to learn why understanding the long-term effects aren’t so easy to figure out.
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Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Emily Contois.