A 44-ounce soft drink may seem monstrous to many, but for a large selection of people across the United States, it is only the beginning of the diet soda they can drink their way through in the course of a single day.
Although many nutritionists and dietitians agree diet soda is just as unhealthy as regular soft drinks, they are commonly marketed to be a healthy alternative to sugary colas, and to many, diet is an alternative they say they cannot live without.
Dena Denniston is one such woman. She said she has never enjoyed the taste of either milk or water, and although she will drink water occasionally, her morning routine usually begins by opening a new bottle of soda. She can then easily go through two liters of either Diet Coke or Pepsi in a day.
“I drink it all the time,” Denniston acknowledged. “It’s pretty much the liquid that I drink.”
Although common now, diet sodas have not always been fashionable. When No-Cal, the first diet soda, was introduced in 1952, it did not gain popularity quickly due to common misconceptions that it was made only for diabetics.
Throughout the 60s, Coca-Cola’s sugar-free soda Tab and Pepsi’s Sugar Free 7Up helped make diet sodas more mainstream, but it was not until 1982 that the most popular diet soda of today, Diet Coke, was released.
Today, with almost all sodas having a diet option, their consumption has risen drastically and continues to be on the rise. According to an article from NPR, Americans are consuming 20 percent more diet sodas now than they did 15 years ago. Diet Coke is the second most popular soft drink in the country, directly behind Coca-Cola.
Ellen Henstrom, a self-professed diet soda addict who lives in Portland, Ore., said she drinks approximately 90 ounces of diet soda every day and can easily spend up to $20 per week buying it. Her first preference is always Diet Mountain Dew. However, because it is not as common or always available from soda fountains, she says she will drink Diet Coke if Diet Mountain Dew is unavailable.
Henstrom, as a Type 1 diabetic, said she knows diet sodas are not necessarily healthy but prefers her 10-year habit to any other addiction she could have. She said it can also be a social event, as she and her friends will meet up and go out specifically to get their diet drinks.
“If I want to do something nice for a friend, sometimes I’ll pick them up a drink if I’m getting one,” Henstrom said.
Although Henstrom does not let the health warnings interfere with her love of diet soft drinks, a new advertising campaign has caused her to change her thinking on some.
“I don’t like to drink Diet Pepsi, but in desperation I will,” Henstrom said. “I used to drink Diet Dr. Pepper, but when they announced Dr. Pepper 10, the commercial was so completely offensive to me that I couldn’t bear to support their company anymore.”
The Dr. Pepper 10 commercial she referenced features a man running through a jungle as if he was in an action movie he says women would not like. The 30-second spot ends with him saying, “So you can keep the romantic comedies and lady drinks, we’re good. Dr. Pepper 10 — it’s not for women.”
Unlike the Dr. Pepper 10 advertising campaign, the Coca-Cola company does not want to market any of its products as either a woman or man’s drink.
Corby Casler, director of communications for Coca Cola’s Northwest regions, said the company does not advertise to a certain gender like the Dr. Pepper 10 commercial, even subliminally.
“Really the common theme for Coca Cola is to offer a variety so that there’s a lot of choice for all people, including low calorie and no calorie,” Casler emphasized. “Coca Cola wants to sell to whomever likes their products. It’s not about gender at all.”
Casler’s point is proven by Ryan Connor, who is studying political science at the University of California, Long Beach, who said it does not matter to him what other people may say; he will still order his diet drink, regardless of advertisements, calories or who else drinks it.
“I love diet soda,” he admitted. “I don’t care if women drink it or not. It tastes good.”
Others, like Alex Ackerman, a senior in BYU’s athletic training program, know the sodas they like and will not let marketing, whether it appeals to or against women, get in their way.
“I haven’t really paid attention to the advertisements, because I know that’s what I’m going to drink anyway,” Ackerman said.
Diet Coke has spent the past five years partnering with The Heart Truth, a 10-year-old campaign by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute which aims to help inform women about heart disease. This partnership appears to help make Diet Coke seem to be a healthy alternative to a 12-ounce can of Coca Cola, which contains 39 grams of sugar.
Ackerman said the high calorie count is not what makes her steer away from regular sodas, but rather the too sugary taste. Apart from sugar, diet sodas have a different recipe, resulting in a completely different flavor, which is the one Ackerman said she likes best.
She tries not to make a habit of drinking any soda too regularly, though. However, about once a week, she and her friends will make a trip out to a fast food restaurant or convenience store specifically for Diet Coke.
“Recently with finals, (my consumption of Diet Coke) has been more frequent,” Ackerman said. “But usually I just drink it when I go out to dinner with friends.”
For Stephanie Aceves, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, Diet Coke was a habit she forced herself to break because of the health risks her friends told her about. She said her friends used to know her predictable drink order, and no matter how often they went out, she would never miss an opportunity to drink it. She said she spent more than $30 on Diet Coke per month and would have continued had it not been for the insistence from her friends.
“I stopped because my friends kept telling me all the health risks that came along with it,” said Aceves, “I quit soda entirely. I don’t think I’d ever fall back because I’m scared of how it will damage my body.”
Lynne Dickens, a homemaker in Rochester, N.Y., said she does not remember when she started drinking diet sodas regularly. She limits herself to one can a day but will not switch to regular soda.
“I would always do the Diet Coke; I don’t like the regular stuff,” Dickens said. “It tastes too sweet to me.”
She said, like Aceves’ friends, her children have a tendency to criticize her love for diet sodas because of health concerns such as kidney damage and loss of bone mass. However, she loves the taste and can’t see herself giving it up completely anytime soon.
“It’s a guilty pleasure,” admitted Dickens. “It’s definitely something I should stop doing and I probably could; I just don’t want to.”