Russ Smith's recent essay on the pointlessness and possible demise of diet sodas got me thinking of my own antipathy for these beverages. Common courtesy insists that hosts offer guests a drink, and that guests accept, but there was one compound word always left me stammering as a lad: "NutraSweet." Bad shit. If whatever can somebody handed me bore the legend of "NutraSweet" anywhere on it, I had to refuse—not just because whatever was in that can was gross, but because whatever was in that can would inevitably result in a Grand Mal headache almost immediately.
Worse: Tab. Have you ever tried Tab? I don't even know if Tab exists anymore, but if it does, you should find one, and try to drink some of it. You should do this because it will be the worst carbonated beverage experience you'll ever have, and you can brag to your friends about it and dare them to try it. Tab is, or was, the ultimate diet soda, marketed, if memory serves, to women who were trying to lose weight; whenever I think of Tab, I think of a sweaty lady in a Lycra bodysuit with a white gym towel draped over her shoulders. A friend of my mother's offered me a glass of it when I was in elementary school and I was scarred for life. Risible is too kind a word to describe it.
Somewhere between then and now, someone figured out how to manufacture and market diet sodas not involving the word "diet" which, while less identifiable as diet sodas, are still somehow lacking in the full-bodied, cavity-encouraging flavor one associates with regular soda (cf. Coke Zero). But diet soda—and diet fill-in-the-blank—hand-wringing has always seemed pointless to me. You should drink real soda, use butter instead of margarine, and tuck into big bags of pork rinds, and so should I; life is too short to not stage a mouth Lollapalooza now and again. As with anything, the trick is moderation, pacing, self-control. Don't deny yourself the consumables you love but shouldn't consume; just consume fewer of them.
Back in my early 20s, I gave up Coca-Cola for a month. A whole month! No clue where I scavenged the willpower, but when I cracked open a Coke 30 days later, it was like losing my virginity all over again. The horror show of Tab aside, that's a carbonated moment I'll carry to my grave.
Actually, people really shouldn't drink soda at all. Sure, you make a good case for moderation (life is short, enjoy what you enjoy), but not everybody has the same definition of moderation. Is one can a day moderation? Of course not. One can a week would be more like it. Coke is delicious, but so are tons of other foods, healthier foods. Soda is one of the main reasons we have an obesity crisis in America.
As an early 1980s Lit instructor at University of Florida, my sister noticed “Tab Girls.” sorority queens who accessorized with cans of the archetypal diet soda. When I was a child, when Tab first came out, I recalled sampling a Tabulator at my cool aunt’s house, expecting Coke and swallowing Chemistry Set. Huh. At the time, I had same reaction to my parents’ J&B scotch. It tasted vile, yet cool. Like Tang. Or cigarettes. Or John Cage music. Tastes aren’t acquired so much as punched-up in the re-write of our minds.Tastes get written-off too. Believe it. Regardless of the upshot, the decision process is quite beside our lying taste buds.