Thursday, September 29, 2016

How the sugar lobby (effectively) killed RC Cola

Having recently broached the subject of the sugar industry's practice of subsidizing research that had a way of working out well for the people writing the checks, this might be a good time to revisit a characteristically fun and well written piece from our friends at Mental Floss.

I am assured that the Delaney mentioned here has no direct connection with anyone involved in this blog.

From The Tragic History of RC Cola by Jeff Wells

Slowly, steadily, RC muscled its way into soda fountains and onto grocery store shelves. To stay top-of-mind with consumers, it continued to innovate. In 1954, it became the first company to nationally distribute soda in aluminum cans. Shortly after, it began selling soda in 16-ounce bottles as an alternative size for thirsty fans. In 1959, Nehi changed its name to match its bestselling product, becoming the Royal Crown Cola Company.

But while Royal Crown had made significant progress, it would continue to trail Coke and Pepsi so long as it continued to sell a similar product. What it needed was something new. What it needed was a game changer.

In 1952, the founder of a sanitarium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn named Hyman Kirsch invented a sugar-free soda called No-Cal. Available in ginger ale and black cherry, No-Cal was made specifically for patients in Kirsch's sanitarium who were either diabetic or suffering from heart ailments. Kirsch quickly discovered that his drink had a much wider appeal, and along with his son began making other flavors, like chocolate, root beer, and cherry. The two sold No-Cal to local stores and quickly built up a distribution network that extended throughout New York and the northeast. Since Kirsch wasn’t a businessman, however, he struggled to expand beyond the regional market. He also continued marketing No-Cal mainly toward diabetic customers, further limiting his reach.

Kirsch’s success caught the eye of the Royal Crown Cola Company. In the mid '50s, it began secretly developing its own diet soft drink—one that would appeal not just to diabetics, but to an entire nation of increasingly calorie-conscious consumers. While other food and beverage companies continued to push everything sweet, salty, and delicious, RC recognized a budding demand for healthier choices.

After a few years RC came out with Diet Rite, a drink that the company believed would be the breakthrough it so desperately needed. Test markets had emphatically confirmed its appeal. One, in South Carolina, saw supermarket managers clamoring for the product. “In Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet Rite on their shelves,” one RC rep noted.

What could cause such a reaction? It wasn’t just that Diet Rite was nearly calorie-free—it’s that it was nearly calorie-free and tasted strikingly similar to the real thing. The key ingredient—the one Kirsch had first used in No-Cal—was an alternative sweetener called cyclamate that was 30 times sweeter than sugar. First developed by a student at the University of Illinois in 1937, it was initially sold as a tabletop sweetener. In 1958, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval, paving the way for its use as a mass-market ingredient. The timing couldn’t have been better for Royal Crown.

In a particularly shrewd bit of marketing, the company made sure to sell Diet Rite just like real cola: In the same slender bottles for a nickel each, or as a six pack. It also made sure to put the word “cola” on its labels. Consumers wanted something different, RC executives figured, but not too different.

When Diet Rite hit shelves in 1962, it was a smashing success. Within a year and a half of its release, it had rocketed up to number four on the sales chart, behind Coke, Pepsi, and regular RC Cola. America, it turned out, was ready for what had for years seemed oxymoronic: a healthy soda. The rest of the industry was in something close to a state of shock. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” reported Georgia Trend, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier.”

Coke and Pepsi were caught completely off guard. Not only had they not anticipated the mainstream appeal of diet soda, they didn’t even have anything in the pipeline. Within a year, Coke would scramble to release TaB, which it also sweetened with cyclamate. Pepsi responded with Patio Cola, a diet soda aimed at women that also contained cyclamate, and which it would soon rebrand as Diet Pepsi. There were, predictably, numerous other fast followers to the market, including long-forgotten brands like LoLo, Coolo-Coolo, and Bubble-Up. In 1965, Coke came out with a citrus-flavored diet soda called Fresca.

None of them, however, could catch Diet Rite, which continued to build market share for Royal Crown Cola.

“RC had the dominant diet cola brand, and that was a very big deal,” Tristan Donovan tells mental_floss. “For RC, there was this sense of, ‘finally, we’ve broken through.’”

By the late '60s, Royal Crown owned 10 percent of the soda market. That was far from dominating, but it was still a very respectable figure, and the company was poised for further growth. By all accounts, the company that started in the basement of a small town grocery store was positioned to become a major player in the soda industry.

The rise of diet soda may have delighted soft drink manufacturers and American consumers, but it downright frightened the sugar industry. After decades of pumping its signature product into sodas, here was a comparable beverage that did away with sugar entirely. What if diet sodas continued to grow? What if all sodas became diet sodas? Ever resourceful, the industry searched for legal channels to undermine diet drinks.

In the mid-'60s, it began: the slow trickle of studies suggesting that cyclamate was hazardous. In 1964, a study linked cyclamate to cancer in animals, and raised the possibility that it could have adverse effects on humans. But the authors stopped short of linking the sweetener to specific conditions like cancer or birth defects. Royal Crown president W.H. Glenn dismissed the study as “nothing derogatory,” and other manufacturers echoed that sentiment. As the decade wore on, however, studies made more specific claims. In 1969, the decisive blow against cyclamate came in the form of two studies. One claimed that chicken eggs injected with cyclamate resulted in deformed chicks, while another found that rats given doses of cyclamate showed an increased risk of developing bladder tumors. The studies’ findings, splashed across newspapers and television screens nationwide, implicated cyclamate as a very dangerous ingredient.

“Everyone began saying, ‘Oh my god, diet soda’s going to give you cancer!’” Donovan says. “The market collapsed almost instantly.”

The FDA, meanwhile, had no choice but to remove its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) classification for cyclamate. The diet soda industry went into a tailspin, plummeting from 20 percent of the market to less than 3 percent. Manufacturers frantically reformulated their drinks and tried to reassure consumers, all to no avail. Overnight, the diet soda craze had come to a standstill.

The downturn hit Royal Crown particularly hard. Diet Rite had been its star performer, the one advantage it had over Coke and Pepsi. Without it, all the company had was the nation’s third favorite cola, which on its own wasn’t going to gain any ground on its rivals. After a few weeks, the company re-released Diet Rite, this time sweetened with saccharine. But the taste—saccharine has a notoriously metallic tinge to it—wasn’t the same, and many people weren’t ready to come back to diet drinks anyway. Eventually, Coke and Pepsi re-entered the market with better formulas and marketing, and once again, Royal Crown Cola had merely served as the guinea pig for its competitors.

According to Donovan, the cyclamate backlash was the direct result of the sugar industry’s meddling. That lobby, he said, provided $600,000 in funding for the studies that doomed cyclamate, both of which are now seen as controversial because they involved exposing animals to much higher levels of the ingredient than any Diet Rite or TaB drinker could ever possibly imbibe. To get the same amount of cyclamate as the rats in one of the studies, for instance, you’d have to drink more than 500 diet drinks a day. Today, cyclamate is widely used as a sweetener in countries like Australia, South Africa, and throughout the European Union. Scientists around the world say it's safe for consumption, yet the results of the 1969 studies still linger. The United States, Japan, and 45 other countries have upheld their ban on the additive.

How could such dubious results be admissible? Donovan pointed to a legal loophole called the Delaney Clause, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 established by a senator named James Delaney, who investigated insecticides and carcinogens in the food industry in the late '50s. The clause required the FDA to ban any additive found to “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” As well-meaning as the Delaney Clause was, it didn’t outline restrictions on the amount of a certain ingredient that could be tested. No matter if it was a granule or a gallon, if it proved hazardous to human or animal health, the ingredient had to be pulled.

“The Delaney Clause was a very well-intentioned but poorly thought-out law,” Donovan says.

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