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A Brief History of TaB, Coca-Cola’s First “Diet” Cola

Vintage 6-pack of TAB king-size bottles
Coca Cola Company

These days, there’s a huge variety of low-calorie soft drinks on the market, from Diet Coke and Coke Zero to Diet Pepsi and numerous low-cal versions of sports drinks. But before this plethora of products became available, we had TaB—Coca-Cola’s first “diet” cola to hit the market—long before Diet Coke debuted.

Sadly, TaB is no more; the Coca-Cola Company discontinued it at the end of 2020, marking the conclusion of its nearly 60-year history. But how did the idea for TaB emerge in the first place? Was it really the first “diet” soda to hit the market? And why on earth was it called TaB, anyway?

The history of TaB, it turns out, is actually pretty fascinating. Here’s how it all happened, from its illustrious start to its slow decline.

The Rise of “Diet” Cola

The “diet” soda market first took root in the 1950s. In 1952, Hyman Kirsch of the Kirsch Beverages company developed a fizzy, sugar-free drink called No-Cal; intended for patients with diabetes and cardiovascular problems at the Jewish Sanitarium for Chronic Disease in Brooklyn—which, by the way, still exists today; it’s now called the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center—at which Kirsch was the vice president, the drink quickly gained steam in other markets.

Shortly thereafter, the Royal Crown Cola Company—known more commonly as RC Cola—got wind of Kirsch’s creation and began working on their own low-calorie, sugar-free soda. RC introduced Diet Rite to drug stores in 1958, where, like No-Cal, it was aimed at people with diabetes; however, when it was released into the wider market in 1962, it became the first “diet” cola to achieve mainstream recognition.

As the Auburn News reported in 1963, the success of Diet Rite meant that the giants of the industry, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, “‘couldn’t afford to stay out’ of the low-cal cola field”; these sorts of drinks were, the paper wrote, “reported to be almost the ultimate in non-food food” (yes, really—“non-food food”), containing just two calories per 12-ounce bottle. Meanwhile, regular sodas contained between 80 and 120 calories at the time. Accordingly, both companies began developing their own low-cal, sugar-free offerings, launching them during the same year that the Auburn News report hit newsstands. Pepsi initially called their drink Patio Diet Pepsi before shortening the name to simply Diet Pepsi—but Coca-Cola took a different path: They created TaB.

TaB Enters the Game

Like other “diet” colas of the era, TaB was sweetened with saccharin and cyclamates rather than sugar; however, it also aimed to “[avoid] the typically unpleasant aftertaste that plagued other diet sodas,” as Snopes put it in 2015. It eschewed the Coca-Cola name because, according to Snopes—citing both Coca-Cola’s president at the time, J. Paul Austin, and an employee of the ad agency that held the Coca-Cola account—the brand was “not about to dilute the tremendous value of its … name by identifying as ‘Coke’ something that was distinctively not Coca-Cola.”

But contrary to popular belief, the name did not stand for “totally artificial beverage” or “tasty aerated beverage”; rather, a computer suggested it—an IBM 1401, in fact—which generated a list of hundreds of thousands of four-letter names. From there, the list was narrowed down to several hundred choices, and then again to about 24. The names on this shortlist were put to the test, with “Tab” coming out on top—ostensibly, it’s sometimes said, because it helped people keep “tabs” on their weight. (Related: Here’s your reminder that weight does not necessarily equal health.) The stylization of the brand name as TaB—as opposed to Tab or TAB—came about as a result of a design decision made concerning the drink’s logo.

And TaB, it turned out, was a hit.

Success, Innovation, and Controversy

TaB proved so successful right out of the gate that, by the 1970s, the brand had launched not one, not two, but six additional flavors. Most of them were fruity; options included TaB Strawberry, TaB Lemon-Lime, TaB Orange, and TaB Black Cherry. The other two, TaB Ginger Ale and TaB Root Beer, aped the taste of other popular, non-cola, non-fruit-related soda varieties. By the early 1980s, TaB had become the best-selling drink in the “diet” soft drink space in the United States.

However, there was something of a problem: Some studies had begun to show evidence that the sweeteners used in TaB (and in many other low-calorie sodas at the time) might be carcinogenic. For instance, one study published in 1969 had found large quantities of cyclamate to increase the incidence of bladder cancer in rats; use of cyclamate in all food and drug products was subsequently banned in the United States in 1970, at which point the substance was removed from the TaB formula. (It’s worth noting, though, that humans would have had to drink 550 cans of soda containing cyclamate a day to see similar results to the rats’.) In the 1970s, saccharin was also found to be carcinogenic in rats, although subsequent research found that this was “due to a mechanism not relevant to humans,” according to the National Cancer Institute. (Saccharin is no longer listed as a hazardous substance, and food products containing it are no longer required to have warning labels about it on their packaging.)

Still, though—the concerns prompted a reformulation of TaB in 1984 substituting Nutrasweet for Saccharin. However, the response was not positive; oddly enough, devoted TaB drinkers missed the metallic aftertaste saccharin had previously lent to the soda, the New York Times reported at the time. Additionally, the introduction of Diet Coke to the market in 1982 had already coincided with a drop in TaB’s popularity among the Coca-Cola beverage portfolio—meaning that TaB had officially peaked and begun its decline.

The Clear Cola Wars

Even so, TaB retained a loyal fanbase for decades to come—even through the clear cola fad of the 1990s. The clear, caramel, coloring-free version of TaB, called—what else?—TaB Clear, was in production for less than two years between 1992 and 1994; however, that was by design. TaB Clear had actually been designed to fail.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have constantly been at war with each other over consumer loyalty for decades, and the 1990s were no exception to the rule. So, when Pepsi launched Crystal Pepsi in 1992, Coca-Cola snapped back with an idea meant both to ambush PepsiCo and to essentially destroy the clear cola market, all in one fell swoop—or at least, that’s what then Coca-Cola marketing executive Sergio Zyman told Stephen Denny in the 2011 book Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry. “What we did is we said we would launch a TaB Clear product and position it right next to Crystal Pepsi, and we’d kill both in the process,” said Zyman. “We basically repositioned the competition.”

Crystal Pepsi wasn’t inherently a “diet” cola, but the strategy was to make it seem like it was, according to Zyman, with the comparison to TaB—a known “diet” cola—being the key point around which this strategy hung. “They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink. ‘This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.’ And we said, ‘No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.’ Even though it wasn’t. Because TaB had the attributes of diet, which was its demise,” said Zyman in Killing Giants. And, it seems, the strategy worked: “That was its problem,” continued Zyman. “It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three or five months, TaB Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

Decline and Retirement

But although TaB Clear was created specifically to drag down an entire section of the market, TaB itself continued to chug along—for a while, at least. Eventually, though, the decline that had begun in the 1980s at the hands of Coca-Cola’s more popular low-calorie soda, Diet Coke, and the controversies over the TaB recipe, picked up steam. Its availability diminished, with enthusiasts of the beverage fearing a widespread shortage as it became carried in fewer and fewer places. In 2006, the introduction of a TaB-branded energy drink, TaB Energy, briefly brought the soda’s name back into the headlines, but it never became a major player in the energy drink market.

In October of 2020, Coca-Cola announced that it was finally retiring TaB at the end of the year. The move came as part of a company-wide scaling back of its brand lineup, with the intention being to “[streamline] its product offerings and [zero] in on its larger and best-selling brands to help ease the strain on supply chains,” as CNN put it during an earlier round of brand closure announcements. Other Coca-Cola lines to receive the axe over the course of 2020 include ZICO coconut water and Odwalla juices.

However, TaB feels like a particular loss due to its status as an off-beat cultural icon. “TaB had an amazing run,” said TaB devotee and Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert Bixby to CNN at the time of the announcement. “As a business decision, I can understand it, but it’s a very sad day. … I do feel it’s like losing a friend.”

No doubt, though, TaB will join the pantheon of discontinued products still worshipped in fan groups and websites spread across the internet today—items like the bubble-filled beverage Orbitz, Altoids Sours candy, and Dunkaroos. Rest well, TaB. You’re in good company.

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »