A Requiem for Diet Soda

From a New York Times column by Frank Bruni headlined “A Requiem for Diet Soda”:

Back in high school, I often woke before my parents did, and I could tell when my mother was about to get out of bed. A sound alerted me. I don’t mean an alarm clock. I mean the crunch-woosh of a can of diet soda being opened. Mom kept one on her night stand. That way, she could have her first sip the very moment her day began.

It was Tab for a while and then, I think, Diet Rite — I get confused about the chronology. There were so many diet sodas in her life. But there was always diet soda in her life, and to her and so many of its other worshipers, it was much more than a source of refreshment and a hit of caffeine, which she could — and did — get from coffee. It was pleasure without penance, a bit of sorcery in the quest for slimness, the Ozempic of its time.

Sugar free. Low calorie. Tab, Diet Rite, Fresca, Diet Coke and their ever-expanding posse transcended mere beverage-dom. They were the sweetness-adjacent triumph of progress itself.

If Mom were alive today, would she still be drinking diet soda? Plenty of people are, as its sprawling real estate on supermarket shelves and its dependable presence in convenience-store refrigerators and vending machines make clear. But many drink it warily. Worriedly. Under a whole new nomenclature, reflecting a whole new era, one with contradictory signals and mores. Diet soda is at odds with self-esteem as many Americans now extol it, with wellness as they’ve come to practice it and, according to some studies and some critics, with health.

The latest knock against diet soda was the World Health Organization’s announcement two weeks ago of a possible link between aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in Diet Coke and many similar soft drinks, and liver cancer. The agency was not saying that typical consumption of aspartame was dangerous, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration disputed any classification of it as a carcinogen.

But that was hardly the first time that health concerns about artificial sweeteners and diet sodas had been raised. Just two months earlier, the W.H.O. issued a warning that long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners could increase an adult’s risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality. The W.H.O. simultaneously said that such sweeteners were not proven to be an effective control of body weight.

The W.H.O.’s sequential advisories underscored the twists and turns of diet soda’s journey through the American gut and the American psyche since the 1960s, when Tab came along, a pacesetter that became a sort of cult. Bit by bit and more and more, diet soda established itself as a special emblem of American capitalism and consumerism: something completely dispensable — there are better sources of hydration, other alternatives for caffeine — that was transformed through packaging, marketing and mythmaking into something indispensable and, thus, an economic juggernaut.

Diet soda morphed into a mirror, changing as we did. There were chapters in the diet soda saga when it spawned versions with extra caffeine, because we were hard-driving and needed them to be our gasoline. There was Diet Coke Plus, suffused with vitamins and minerals, because we were hankering for such goodness. There were colorless diet sodas, which carried an illusion of pureness that spoke to our heightened awareness of all the toxic chemicals in our lives.

There were flights of diet-cola fancy, reflecting our quickness to boredom and unquenchable thirst for novelty and variety. In 2018, for example, versions of Diet Coke in four new flavors — Ginger Lime, Feisty Cherry, Zesty Blood Orange and Twisted Mango — were introduced. “Let’s speak frankly: These are crazed and desperate drinks,” Nathan Heller asserted in an article in The New Yorker that year titled “The Decline and Fall of Diet Coke and the Power Generation That Loved It.” He tried the Ginger Lime. “It tasted like Diet Coke drunk from a glass unrinsed of citrus Dawn,” he wrote.

But, he noted, Diet Coke had bigger problems than that. “In recent years,” he observed, “consumers have grown more scrutinous of supposedly healthy fare, and beautiful people are more likely to seek stimulation in nut-milk lattes, matcha, fresh juice, or a number of extremely fancy waters.” It was as if we’d finally run out of permutations of diet soda and grown bored with our soda selection as an act of self-definition. We still are what we drink, but now it’s our Starbucks order — or, rather, our renunciation of Starbucks for a more arcane, artisanal roasting and grinding of coffee beans — that speaks to our values, our refinement, our budget, our pretension.

And the very idea of “beautiful people,” and of what makes a person beautiful, has been mercifully re-examined. Decades ago, people routinely flaunted their weight-loss goals and regimens as badges of self-betterment, proof of discipline. Call it pulchritudinous puritanism. But the body positivity movement, a more complex definition of good health and a more nuanced attitude toward fitness upended that.

“Diet” has become a four-letter word — and a word increasingly deleted from the bottles and cans of Tab’s heirs, which prefer the label “zero sugar.” They still sell quite well and, no doubt, to many people trying, as Mom was, to keep excess pounds at bay. But those people tell themselves a different story, with a different vocabulary. Diet soda — sorry, zero sugar soda — affirms our talent for self-deception.

I stopped drinking it more than two decades ago, after dalliances with various brands. I just didn’t need all that metal and plastic and fizz in my life, not when I could get diet soda’s most vital ingredient with so much less fuss at so much less cost. It came, and still comes, straight from the kitchen faucet.

Frank Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

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