The first diet soda was called No-Cal Ginger Ale. It was created by Hyman Kirsch, a Russian immigrant to New York.
Kirsch founded a soft drink company in 1904 but later became the vice president of the Jewish Sanitarium for Chronic Disease, in New York City.
Kirsch wanted to create a sugar-free soft drink for the diabetic and cardiovascular patients of the center. Although sugar-free products using artificial sweeteners had been made since the 1920’s, there were no diet soda beverages on the market.
No-Cal Ginger Ale and Eleven Other Flavors
In 1952, Kirsch used an artificial sweetener called calcium cyclamate to sweeten his first diet soda, a ginger ale, which he called “No-Cal.” Expanding his reach beyond the sanitarium, he followed this product with No-Cal Root Beer, Black Cherry, Lime, Cola, and even Chocolate. Eventually there were eleven flavors. He advertised the products as a sugar-free soda for weight-conscious women and was able to do quite well, selling over 2 million cases of soda in New York and Washington, D.C. alone, and by the end of 1953 the beverages were bringing in over $5 million a year. Below is an early television commercial from No-Cal, featuring ginger ale, but mentioning the eleven other flavors available. There’s a party in every bottle of No Cal!
No-Cal Soda Commercial
Canada Dry Glamor and Diet Rite
Spurred by the success of these first diet sodas, other soda companies soon began making their own. In 1954, Canada Dry introduced a zero-calorie ginger ale called Glamor. The Royal Cola company released Diet Rite Cola in 1958, which was sweetened with a mixture of cyclamates and saccharin. Diet Rite was initially marketed to diabetics and sold in drug stores, but in 1961 Royal Crown decided to try out a wider market and launched the product in Chicago supermarkets. Claiming it had all the taste but none of the calories, this was the true spark for the diet soda industry, and even bigger players soon followed with their own brands. Diet Rite went national the following year.
TAB and Patio (Diet Pepsi)
Once Canada Dry and Royal Crown released diet sodas, Pepsi and Coca-Cola had no choice but to get in the game. The first diet soda that Coca-Cola developed was not Diet Coke. The company had been warned by advisers that calling a soda Diet Coca-Cola might undermine its trademark. So, they launched TAB, instead, in April, 1963. TAB was said to be a play on people “keeping tabs on their weight.” Pepsi, as well, hesitated to use its name on a diet soda product, and therefore launched Patio Diet Cola, also in 1963. If you’ve never heard of Patio, you’re not alone. Pepsi changed the name to Diet Pepsi a year later.
Sugar Free Dr. Pepper
Dr Pepper came out with another oddly named product, Dietetic Dr Pepper, in 1962, first in cans and then in bottles, introduced in 1962. Despite the word dietetic, Dr Pepper never intended the beverage to be just for diabetics or people with other medical problems, but the public sure thought it sounded too medicinal, so sales were quite low. In 1966, they dropped the weird medical sounding name and changed it to Sugar Free Dr. Pepper. The name was changed to Diet Dr Pepper in 1987. No-Cal had also used the word dietetic to describe its products, as well.
Fresca and Sugar Free 7-Up
Coca-Cola, in 1966 launched a second diet soda, citrus flavored Fresca. 7-UP resisted as long as they could, not wanting to compromise taste, but eventually released Sugar Free 7-UP in 1970, which wasn’t changed to Diet 7-Up until 1979.
Diet Coke was released in 1982. Most people don’t realize that Diet Pepsi had already been on the market for decades by then, and that it had, at first, been TAB versus Diet Pepsi, not Diet Coke versus Diet Pepsi. The Coca-Cola company had no intention of simply competing with Diet Pepsi with their new Diet Coke. Instead, they planned for Diet Coke to become the second largest selling soft drink of any kind, behind Coca-Cola, of course. This is exactly what eventually happened, and Coke was helped along by the the attacks on sugar in the late 1970’s, which bolstered the diet soda market greatly. Today, the diet soda industry is worth billions. No-Cal sodas, the brand that launched a billion-dollar industry, could not compete for long after such big players came into the market, and dissipated from the market in the 1960’s.
No-Cal Soda Brand Relaunch
The No-Cal soda brand was relaunched in 2005 by INOV8 Beverage Company LLC, which offers vanilla cream, cherry lime, clementine, and, believe it or not, chocolate. Curiously, the company, in describing the No-Cal products, speaks of the the fun attitude that was the hallmark of the soft drink attitude before the food police came along and told us what we couldn’t drink or eat.” It seems they are unaware that this soda brand was initially marketed for a ‘serious’ condition and, of course, the popularity of diet sodas had everything to do with “the food police telling us what we couldn’t eat or drink,” i.e. sugar. Oh, well. That’s marketing!
Cyclamate and Saccharin Problems
The early cyclamates that had been used for sweetening diet sodas were banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1970 because of the potential carcinogenic effects of its metabolites. Saccharin took the place of cyclamates but saccharin was the subject of its own cancer scare after a 1977 study claimed it caused cancer in lab animals. A moratorium was placed on its use but this was lifted in 1991 after saccharin was vindicated. Newer sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal) had taken its place by that time, itself claimed to cause many ill health effects, none of which have been proven. Sucralose (Splenda), is now widely used and Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke with Splenda in 2005.