The dark secret of my (former) diet soda addiction

Pepsi has raised the prices of its soft drinks by more than 15% in recent months. A 12-pack of any of the company’s chemical-infused, acidic canned liquids now runs around seven dollars in the Cincinnati area. Coca-Cola products are priced at a similarly extortionate level.

We’ve been trained to crave sodas for at least three generations. My grandfather was a fan of Coca-Cola. He was one of those World War II servicemen to whom Coca-Cola aggressively marketed its products. He was never without his supply.

World War II-era Coca-Cola ads

My grandfather was congenitally opposed to any form of diet cola, though. He drank only the original formula, with real sugar. But then, a Coca-Cola in his day was a rare treat, something to consume after hard hours of labor. In that context, the sugar boost was a feature, not a bug.

Subsequent generations started drinking sodas to fulfill their basic hydration needs, and that led to a demand for diet colas. One of the first of these was Coca-Cola’s Tab. Marketed mostly to women, Tab was the forerunner to Diet Coke. 

1982 Tab ad

My mother drank Tab. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, she always had a carton of Tab on the floor of our kitchen pantry. Tab had a heavy saccharine taste, but it was—in my opinion, at least—vastly superior to Diet Coke, which Coca-Cola debuted in 1982.

But PepsiCo had been marketing its own diet cola, Diet Pepsi, long before that. Diet Pepsi first hit the stores on December 28, 1964. Though the formula has changed over the years, the basic branding of Diet Pepsi remains the same, for going on six decades.

1965 ‘Pepsi Generation’ ad, featuring Diet Pepsi

This is where I come in. I started drinking Diet Pepsi back in the mid-1980s, when I was an overweight teenager trying to get in shape. Back then, the artificial sweetener used in the drink was called Nutrasweet, which was actually aspartame—a hyper-sweet, but calorie-free substance made not by nature, but by chemical engineers. 

Diet Pepsi did help me lose weight as a teenager. At least—I think so. I know there are studies out there that say diet sodas actually make you gain weight. For me, the proof was in the pudding, or on the scale. Switching to diet sodas was part of my teenage weight loss plan, along with eating less and running. I lost about 70 lbs. in 1984. 

But my weight loss came with a cost: I was now addicted to diet sodas. Maybe not addicted in the same way a heroin addict is addicted—but addicted, nonetheless.

In my twenties, I discovered a new artificially sweetened form of liquid crack: Diet Mountain Dew.

Diet Mountain Dew is just hellaciously tasty, and—in my experience—addictive. One morning I found myself without my accustomed supply. I was driving on the highway, when I was seized by a headache, and an almost uncontrollable desire for Diet Mountain Dew. 

I pulled off at the nearest gas station, and purchased an 18-ounce bottle. Problem solved! My headache went away, as did my yearnings. 

But Diet Mountain Dew isn’t the only diet soda that deserves a spot on the DEA’s schedule of addictive substances. Have you tried Diet Cherry Pepsi? That is another diet soda that tastes a little better than it should. It gets the conspiracy-minded gears of my brain grinding…

Yours truly, unopened can of Pepsi Zero Sugar in hand. This one is mango-flavored, or so I am told.

I am embarrassed, in retrospect, about the amount of diet soda I used to consume. I would almost always drink at least four cans per day, and sometimes as many as six or seven. Luckily, I still have kidneys. 

Then about three years ago, I decided that it was time to stop. There were two factors behind this decision. First of all, I read all those online articles about how bad diet soda is supposed to be for you. I’m sure some of them are, in fact, the work of uninformed Internet crackpots. But common sense tells me that ingredients like phenylalanine (which can increase your blood pressure) sodium citrate, and potassium sorbate can’t be healthy in large quantities, day in and day out.

I also discovered my latent love of coffee. Coffee, according to the current medical thinking, is actually good for you, and a source of antioxidants. 

Also, you don’t have to purchase coffee in canned six-packs. Sure, the price of coffee has gone up in recent months, just like everything else. But the only people who are really paying out the wazoo for coffee are those people you see waiting in the Starbucks drive-thru line each morning, plunking down up to $2.45 for a single serving. I buy my coffee by the bagful, and make it at home. My daily coffee expense is almost too small to measure. 

Since kicking the diet soda habit, though, I have become something of a coffee snob. I have acquired the habit of boring people with disquisitions about the relative merits of Colombian, Brazilian, Guatemalan, and Vietnamese arabica beans.  

I’ve been known to linger for up to ten minutes in the coffee aisle of my grocery store, as I weigh the relative merits of the latest offerings from Caribou Coffee and Peet’s. Italian roast or French roast? Such decisions, any coffee snob will tell you, are not to be taken lightly.  

But this is a tradeoff I’m willing to live with. I now drink nothing but coffee, tea, and water. I no longer have to personally concern myself with what might be in that can of diet soda, or what Coca-Cola or PepsiCo is charging for it.