The news this week that Coca-Cola is retiring its Tab brand of diet soda at the end of the year came as a surprise to many boomers, who remember when it was introduced in 1963. Diet soft drinks had been around since the 1920s, in various regional brands, marketed mainly to diabetic consumers. However, the story of diet sodas is yet another product that got a major boost during the boomer years.
The boomer-era path leading up to Tab was accelerated in 1952, when Hyman Kirsch sold his No-Cal Ginger Ale locally in New York. He made the product with calcium cyclamate, an artificial sweetener. The diet drink became so popular that he branched out into eleven different flavors. Another regional product, Diet Rite Cola, was introduced in the Chicago area in 1958 by The Royal Crown Company. The sweeteners used were a mix of cyclamates and saccharin. It was sold nationally in 1962, having the distinction of being the first nationally distributed diet soda.
Other beverage companies wanted in on the action, and over the next few years, Canada Dry introduced their diet brand, as did Dr. Pepper. Pepsi entered the diet soda ring in 1963 under the name Patio, the same year as Tab hit the stores, and soon followed it with a line of flavored diet drinks. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi were worried about diluting their core brand trademark, which is why neither called their first foray into the diet soda realm “Diet Coke” or “Diet Pepsi.” In fact, the cola flavor of Patio evolved into Diet Pepsi in 1964, but Diet Coke did not appear until 1982.
It seemed like smooth sailing for Tab and the Coca-Cola Company as it competed well in the marketplace with more than a dozen other diet soda brands. Then, in 1969, a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that a cyclamate caused cancer in laboratory rats. The experiment was repeated by Abbott Labs, the manufacturer of cyclamates, and the results were confirmed. In 1970, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of cyclamates as a sweetener. Overnight, the diet soda market collapsed as consumers fled from the products and manufacturers scrambled to find another sweetener. Coca-Cola settled on the old stand-by, saccharin, for Tab, as did several other companies. Saccharin had been around since 1897, and there had been questions about its health effects from the start. It was briefly banned for use as a sweetener in 1912, but the ban was reversed during World War 1, when it was widely used as a substitute during sugar rationing. In 1977, saccharin was implicated as causing cancer in lab rats. There was a moratorium on its sale by the FDA, but it was lifted in 1991 after further review. Meanwhile, Tab and a host of other diet sodas had to improvise. The sweetener called Aspertame was billed as the logical next step on the list of artificial sweeteners in 1974, but initial test results caused the FDA to hold off approval until 1981.
Mister Boomer’s one and only encounter with Tab came when he was dating a woman in college who drank the stuff. Visiting her house one day, and curious about this elixir, he asked for a sample. She poured him a sip into a glass, and it was the last sip of Tab he ever took. According to Mister B, it had a medicinal taste that was not cola-adjacent at all.
How about you, boomers? Did you drink Tab then? Do you drink Tab now? Will you miss it when it’s gone?