Diet Sodas Are Disappearing From Store Shelves — Here's Why

For once, it's not a supply-chain issue.

USA - Business - Soft Drink Market in the US
Photo: Ramin Talaie / Contributor / Getty Images

Diet soda has been a staple in restaurants and households, vending machines and convenience stores for decades. Whether you're watching your calories or just trying to balance out the burger and fries you're getting at the local diner, a diet soda can be counted on to be satisfying and hit the spot, minus extra calories and sugar.

Recently, many diet soda fans have noticed there is less "diet" soda on the shelves at local grocery stores. In its place are a lot more sodas marketed as "zero sugar."

Serious soda fans will tell you there is a difference in taste between zero sugar soda and diet soda.

"Both zero sugar and diet drinks are sugar-free and calorie-free," says Lisa Williams, PhD, a thought-leader on the topic of global supply chain and logistics, and CEO of World of EPI. However, the diet formulation often has a lighter taste, while zero sugar soda tastes more like the original version.

So while diet soda has always been zero sugar (and made with artificial sweeteners), it all feels a bit like semantics. But perhaps is there something more behind this transition? We asked experts to explain why diet soda might be disappearing.

Why Drink Manufacturers Are Making Less Diet Soda

Perhaps the biggest reason you're seeing more "zero sugar" drinks on the shelf has to do with shifting consumer preferences.

"Zero sugar has a more favorable meaning than diet these days," Dr. Williams says, adding that the word "diet" has fallen out of vogue for younger shoppers like Millennials and Gen Z. "Zero sugar is more positively received. Therefore, more no-calorie beverage suppliers are using the term instead of diet to appeal to younger consumers."

A lot of it comes down to the complications of the English language.

"There are different words for 'to lose weight' and 'a daily eating pattern' in the Dutch language, but in English, there's one word for both: diet," says Jaime Schwartz Cohen MS, RD, a dietitian working in nutrition marketing and communications at Ketchum. "The focus on calories and fat has just been so intertwined in how we think about what we eat, and foods marketed as diet used to be reassuring."

But the tide started to turn, Cohen believes, with avocado-loving Millennials who view food as delicious and nourishing, not as calories and fat to fear.

"The connotation of the word 'diet' is counter to everything Millennials and now Gen Z want in what they eat and drink," Cohen says. In other words, you don't have to be on a diet to want to eat healthier.

"Eating less sugar is perceived as being healthier, so a product described as zero sugar resonates with them — even when it's the same diet product with a new name," Cohen adds.

In addition, diet drinks often contain aspartame and artificial sweeteners that have been linked to risks of cancer in studies.

"Rebranding to zero sugar is a simple marketing tool that mass brands are using to ditch diet," says Lindsay Martin, vice president of marketing at Reed's. (Martin adds that Reed's has been using zero sugar for years.)

That is why you'll see a whole lot of Coke Zero Sugar or Pepsi Zero Sugar on shelves, but perhaps less Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke than in years past.

"Pepsi Zero Sugar remains a key focus for our brand as we have seen the growing demand from consumers for great tasting zero-sugar alternatives," Todd Kaplan, Vice President of Marketing at Pepsi, wrote in an email. "Recently, we've gone all in on Pepsi Zero Sugar as we believe it is the perfect match for zero-sugar cola drinkers who are unwilling to compromise on taste. We expect zero sugar cola to remain a big focus area for us in the future as more and more consumers look for great tasting zero sugar products."

Chances are that diet sodas will always exist in some form, and be available any time we want to balance out that pizza or burger. But having that zero sugar, zero calorie option in a way we can feel better about? We're absolutely on board for that!

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