I must say the recent news that the Coca-Cola Co. was discontinuing Tab diet soda did not stun me. Like hearing about the demise of a pop star you used to have a crush on decades ago, I thought Tab had already died, shoved aside by brighter stars in the cola firmament — Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi, and all those weird flavored waters.
It was very, very sweet, with the aftertaste of furniture polish. It made me feel grownup. It went very well with the maraschino cherries I consumed to distract me from not eating desserts.
If only Tab’s overdue withdrawal from the scene meant that no more young girls wanted perfect bodies and its target audience had dried up. But its departure is not a signal that diet drinks are on the way out. As Coca-Cola so aptly put it in announcing the move, with Tab out of the way, there’s even more money to invest in Diet Coke and Coke Zero.
Tab was an indelible part of my teenage effort to lose weight. When I was 12, my size was 81/2 chubbette. Could there be a more terrible name for a size? I got teased a lot in middle school. I wasn’t terribly overweight, but when you are under 5 feet tall, it doesn’t take a lot of extra pounds to look, well, extra round. Maybe I heard that Tab was for women who wanted to “keep tabs” on their weight.
Tab was launched in 1963, Coca-Cola’s first diet drink. That was also the year Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” argued that women wanted more than motherhood and marriage, and that their problems could not be resolved by “waxed floors and perfectly applied lipstick.” The first birth control pill had come on the market, promising women more autonomy.
But while women might have been aspiring to a bolder future, they still wanted to appeal to men. That Tab debuted when it did demonstrated that women’s liberation was as aspirational as a thin waistline; that entrenched corporate interests and cultural imperatives would need to be combated as much as sexist laws and workplace politics.
Certainly Tab’s ads reflected the pervasive beauty ideals that were to continue dogging American women for decades to come,the type of beauty I and millions of girls in the 1960s grew up admiring but which I could never attain — lean, tan, usually blonde; attractive in a bikini, on a bike or picking up their toddler, while showing off how swell they looked in shorts. They were hip but wholesome, sexy but subtle, energetic but nonthreatening.
Even as late as 1969, when the women’s movement was in full swing, Tab urged women to “Stay in his mind — be a Mindsticker.” The ad depicted a man dreaming of a devastatingly attractive woman in a one-piece swimsuit. “Have a shape he can’t forget. Tab can help,” the ad advised.
I gave up the Italian bread ever-present in my house growing up. I ate less of my mother’s pasta, lasagna and meatballs. I abstained from desserts. And I drank Tab. It was very, very sweet, with the aftertaste of furniture polish. It made me feel grownup. It went very well with the maraschino cherries I consumed to distract me from not eating desserts.
I did not know then that Tab’s saccharin was linked to cancer in rats, or that the cherries’ red dye 40 contained potentially dangerous contaminants. I just wanted to look like everybody else in my high school. Despite — or perhaps because of — my bizarre diet, I lost the weight. But it made me a lifelong calorie-counter. Even now, I know that 16 dark chocolate chips are 80 calories. I keep 16 chips in a sandwich bag to restrict my chip bingeing. It sometimes even works.
It would be nice to think that the exit of Tab at least signals the declining popularity of diet drinks. But that’s not the case. Tab’s decline actually began in 1982 when Diet Coke came on the market. When it looked like Diet Coke was taking off, I imagine they gave Tab a smaller office and stopped sending it on business trips, but Tab hung in there. As late as 2008, Coca-Cola still was selling 3 million cases of the stuff. As the company announced it would drop the soda from its product lineup, it called Tab a “pink pioneer” and a “cultural icon.” How condescending! Did they give Tab a party and a gold watch?
While Tab had a devoted following, in the grander scheme of things, the cola had become a sliver of Coca-Cola’s market. To most soda drinkers, Tab and its metallic aftertaste simply didn’t seem as good as the diet soft drinks that followed it.
Meanwhile, Coke Zero and Diet Coke are going strong. And the urge to control our weight continues to keep them popular, even though in our hearts we know that these products aren’t so great for us.
I did not know then that Tab’s saccharin was linked to cancer in rats, or that the cherries’ red dye 40 contained potentially dangerous contaminants.
As much as we discuss body self-acceptance, and as often as we say a woman’s weight or size don’t matter, to most of us it does. And what we eat does matter, because obesity is a major health problem. Diet soft drinks promise a shortcut, and offer us a noncaloric “get out of jail free” card. Yes, we’ll eat that burger, but we’ll drink Tab or Coke Zero or another diet soda. A 12-ounce serving of Coke Classic is 140 calories. So can’t we now subtract that from the meal?
Of course, the math never works to our advantage. Worse, there is a growing body of evidence raising concerns about what kind of health risk diet sodas present. Some researchers have suggested that the pretend sugary taste of a diet drink may make your body think you’ve actually consumed lots of sugar, which can lead to increased appetite and consumption of more calories. Diet soda consumption may also increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Nevertheless, diet drinks are not in danger of disappearing from the scene. There may be plus-size models these days, and chubbette styles have been consigned to vintage stores, a blessing to all plump young girls. But while Tab is gone, it hasn’t taken with it the drive to look smashing in a dress that’s one size too small.