The real reason behind Diet Coke’s cult following.

There’s an unmistakable flavour to it. A familiar cool, crispness that hits the front of the tongue before it coats your whole mouth.

The artificial sweetener, delicious and satisfying, is a replacement for all that many claim is wrong with the world: real sugar. Other soft drinks are not made to support a woman on a mission, but this one is. It’s guilt-free allure. Responsible consumption. The healthier option. A little treat. The fizzy version of three almonds and a stick of gum.

It’s a Diet Coke.

Watch: They key to beating your kid’s soft drink addiction. Post continues after video.

We’ve long been led to believe Diet Coke is a superior beverage options, once the soft drink of choice for members of elite crowds, including late designer Karl Lagerfeld, who confessed to drinking it from “the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed”, in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar in 2011.

“I can even drink it in the middle of the night and I can sleep. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t drink tea, I drink nothing else,” he said.

Other celebrities have helped keep Diet Coke in the media cycle, of course.

In 2013, Taylor Swift said Diet Coke just “gets me and my lifestyle”. Donald Trump, former President of the United States, once admitted to drinking 12 cans of the stuff a day.

It’s worth knowing that the cult following for the beverage might come down to its recipe. The formula was not based on the Coca-Cola formula, but a slightly different balance of ingredients and high-fructose corn syrup. It tasted more like the now-defunct Tab drink (started in 1963 by Coca-Cola, who once had a policy to use the name only on the flagship drink). 

So by the time 2005 rolled around, the brand released Coca-Cola Zero Sugar — a no-calorie beverage that was made to taste as closely as possible to the original without any sugar. 

This impacted the sales of diet beverages in a big way, with consumption of diet soft drink falling 31 per cent between 2005 and 2016 in the US. People preferred the sleek black can and its taste, which had none of the same bubbly crispness that as Diet Coke.

The cultish following continued to decline due to perceived health risks. The fizzy drink is made with aspartame, an artificial non-sugar sweetener, which was classified as possibly carcinogenic in 2023. (Aspartame is also found in Coke Zero, but a much smaller quantity.)

While it had fallen out of favour, the makers behind the drink wanted to revolutionise it and bring it back in a cooler, fresher way — so Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey updated the can to be more “sleek” with “a modern, more engaging package,” according to CNBC.

And their tactics worked. Really well. In the UK, Diet Coke sales overtook the classic Coca-Cola in 2018 (also in part a result of the sugar tax, but the rebranding of the beverage certainly helped). 

It’s now become a ‘cool’ beverage again, and on TikTok, it seems to be the drink of choice. While some users are admitting to their reliance on Diet Coke, others are showing the “only” correct way to drink the “crispy” drink.

@kattweston 😌 #fyp ♬ TIME 2 PRETEND – quiana 

And yet, in spite of all this, you’re less likely to find a can of Diet Coke anywhere but the supermarket shelves in Australia. 

McDonald’s removed the beverage from its menus a year back. Pubs rarely stock it. Corner stores don’t either. Instead of keeping Diet Coke in the back of the fridge, most established franchises offer up a tall glass of Coke Zero instead.

And celebrity culture expert Natalia Rachel tells Mamamia that it’s this widespread removal from shelves that has contributed to its resurgence.

“People love what they can’t have, what’s hard to get, rare, or special. It’s the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the win, the satisfaction of the prize,” Rachel explains. “When a product is hard to find, we are going to want it more.”

When it comes to stars and influencers, “being special, on trend, or having elite access to certain things becomes something that’s chased, and also offers some kind of psychological validation”, she adds. See: celebrities like Elon Musk, who in 2022 shared a picture of a “traditional gun and a revolver” on his bedside table, right next to four Diet Cokes (the caffeine-free version).

As always, this desire to be ‘ahead’ of trends has trickled down to the mainstream as well.

@lydiabirdd @mcdonalds you are the love of my life #mcdonaldsdietcoke #dietcoke #dietcokeforlife ♬ im good – kpopvrycs

Dr Vincent, food scientist and founder of Renovatio, has another take, telling Mamamia the drink’s cult following stems from the “taste and mouthfeel”.

“Diet Coke uses different types of additives and blends of artificial sweeteners,” he explains. “Coke Zero or Coke No Sugar were created to be an analogue of Classic Coke. Basically, they try to make the exact copy of Classic Coke… but without sugar.”

Diet Coke, however, was created with a different goal in mind. The makers behind the beverage wanted it to be the first iteration of Coke without any sugar at all, Dr Vincent says. 

“It has a ‘lighter’ flavour and mouthfeel profile, and some people may even describe it as ‘metallic.'”

@hauskris Replying to @Mara i’ve spent so long getting this formula clinically tested and proven!! (by me) #dietcokebreak #middaydietcokebreak #middaybreak #dietcoke #wfh #wfhbreak #lunchbreak #truelemonpartner #truelime #truecitrus #dietcokewithlemon ♬ original sound – Kristen

While it might taste good, and even seem to be better for us than a regular can of Coke, Dr Vincent says it’s not necessarily a healthier alternative.

“Some studies have linked high and regular consumption of artificially sweetened beverages, including diet soda, to adverse health effects,” he tells Mamamia. “These negative impacts can include weight gain, disruptions to digestive and gut health, cardiovascular problems and an increased craving for sweets.”

It doesn’t help that in 2023, Reuters reported that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — the World Health Organisation’s cancer research arm — listed aspartame, a sweetener found in Diet Coke, as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

“One can of Diet Coke is likely not going to affect your health in a bad way, especially if you are generally healthy,” says Dr Vincent, but it’s good to remain mindful.

“Drinking these types of beverages does not contribute to the hydration that our body needs. Sure, your body will and can adapt to the lower amount of plain water that you drink, but since our body is 70 per cent water, this ‘hidden dehydration’ can cause our system to work harder.”

Diet Coke may not be a “better” option, but to its loyal band of followers, it doesn’t really matter.

Feature Image: Columbia Pictures.

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