How diet sodas taste like crap and why they're designed that way!

Here is an updated reposting (originally published on 04-26) with further information at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

i-e55a87714906484446e25ad99bb04019-bigmouth300_11757.jpgI really like soda, especially the kinds with lots of caffeine and sugar. However, I have minor panic attacks whenever I drink them and think about all the corn syrup and other scary junk that goes into the soda flowing through my body. On the other hand I can't stand diet sodas - whose chemicals won't make me fat and diabetic (and probably take a lot longer to insidiously wreck the body) but taste like crap.

So why do they taste like crap?!

A group from my own campus (The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), has come up with some methods to determine why diet sodas suck.

Consumers may claim they don't like diet soda because of artificial sweeteners, but Schmidt and sensory scientist Lee think people are also influenced by a subtle difference called "mouth-feel." Think body, fullness, thickness; regular soda contains high-fructose corn syrup, diet soda doesn't.

What makes these scientists think mouth-feel is the culprit? For one thing, artificial sweeteners have been greatly improved and extensively studied. "Taste profiles for artificial sweeteners now closely match the one for sucrose, which humans describe as the perfect sweetness," Lee said.

But the most compelling piece of evidence is the verdict of Lee's sensory panel--12 people trained for four weeks to use a 15-point scale in order to rate the characteristics that contribute to the mouth-feel of diet and regular soda. Lee called her panelists "highly trained instruments" because they could detect significant differences in the mouth-feel of 14 samples that the scientist's super-sensitive lab instruments identified as very, very small.

Too bad they haven't found a non-toxic ingredient to replace all the bad ones in order to attain the same "mouth feel" as a regular soda.

Before I leave you with this exciting new information I thought I'd give you this last little quote;
"The human mouth cavity appears to be a super-rheometer (the lab instrument that measures viscosity or thickness)"

A mouth cavity?! sounds like the author is talking about a huge alien demon mouth ready to engulf Tokyo.


Mark Chu-Carroll from Good Math Bad Math has cleared up the differences between the different types of diet cola. Here's what he says,

One of my friends from IBM is married to a woman who's part of the team that invented the flavor formula for diet pepsi and pepsi one. The way that she explained the difference between the two of them was:

* Diet sodas are traditionally marketed to women. In studies, they found that women who drank diet soda actually *preferred* a watered down flavor that made the artificial sweetener obvious, because psychologically, they wanted to *know* that they were doing something to help themselves lose weight.

* PepsiOne was created with the idea of marketing a diet soda to not just men, but specifically football fans. (Something to do with a superbowl advertising campaign.) And they found that men wanted diet stuff where they wouldn't notice that they were drinking diet stuff. Football guys, apparently, want to lose weight on a diet without ever noticing that they dieting, and so they wanted the soda to taste as strong as the regular stuff, and to do as much as possible to mask the flavor differences between diet and regular.

More like this

Personally the only pop I enjoy drinking is the stuff with aspertame in it. For whatever reason I can't stand regular pop. Diet Coke forever for me.

As a diet soda drinker, colas with aspartame taste better than those with sucralose[Diet Coke vs Coke Xero]. The opposite is true for diet grapefruit - sucralose is better than aspartame [different brands, though - Shasta vs Fresca and house brands].

Maybe it's just me.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 26 Apr 2007 #permalink

One of the great things living on the southern border is being able to get sodas from Mexico. They are still made with cane sugar and taste so much better and fill you up before you drink to much.

So is there any truth that aspartame can cause cancer? There is a lot on the internet about that, and apparently some study out of Italy or Greece recently confirmed it.

There's a bit of conjecture that diet sodas are not great for dieters. Something about the body expecting a certain amount of sugar and still ramping up fat storage, even though the calorie count is nil.

Then there is the worst thing about colas, diet or regular, which is the phosphoric acid. They promote kidney stones. I have two stones in a years time, curtailing my cola consumption considerably. In the process, I lost 15 pounds, by doing nothing else. My diet and sedentary lifestyle didn't change, except I cut down on cola.

Pepsi's a killer, man.

I was under the impression that up here in Canada we don't use HFCS in our Coke. And we're not big fans of diet up here, either. So this explanation seems pretty hokey.

Ingredients on CANADIAN regular coke:
Carbonated water, sugar/glucose-fructose, caramel colour, phosphoric acid, natural flavours, caffeine

No mention of corn syrup. I assume American ingredients have the notable difference?

Sodas in Western Europe has no high-fructose corn syrup either. Seems to me this story is relevant only to Americans. Diet sodas still taste different in other parts of the world, so artificial sweeteners must be an important factor.

And therefore I would argue that it's hardly relevant to Americans, either. Corn syrup and the lack of it may make the soda taste *different*, but not *bad* like artificial sweeteners do. I imagine the difference is like Coke to Pepsi; they taste different from one another, and people can have their preferences, but compared against each other it's hard to argue that one is *bad*.

But Coke with sugar doesn't just taste different, it tastes better. Coke without sugar simply tastes bad in the opinion of many.

I (and many others, I believe) can taste aspartame very strongly. I absolutely hate the stuff. Even regular HFCS or sugar-based sodas sometimes include it now.

The only artificial sweetener that I *like* the taste of is sodium cyclamate - banned in the USA, but widely used elsewhere. Saccharin is also OK in small quantities, but it's fairly hard to find. (Schweppes Diet Tonic Water is the only diet soda that I drink, because it uses saccharin.)

Coke lovers wait every year for Passover, when they buy the yellow-capped bottles which are "Kosher for Passover." In the US, that means they are made with cane sugar, since corn products are forbidden during the holiday. I have about 30 bottles stashed away at home, enough to last the year.

In my opinion Diet Rite is the best artificially flavored soft drink - it that tastes the closest to sugar sweetened ones. Diet Coke is flavorless.

Diet sodas don't taste bad to everybody. Not everybody can taste the chemical taste of artificial sweetners, just as not everybody can taste the toxins in brussels sprouts. So for those people the question of why diet sodas taste like crap has no meaning.

An interesting note: I've found that there's an island of palatability with a ratio of about 5 parts Diet to 1 part regular Dr. Pepper, American version. If one uses 10 parts Diet Dr. Pepper/1 part Regular Dr. Pepper/1 part Regular Pepsi, the result is in my experience actually tastier than Dr. Pepper, and I can drink a 52 ounce container of it over the course of a day and absorb at most the calories of a single can. ^.^

Sodas in Australia and New Zealand are also made with cane sugar and not HFCS.

Another thing to look for in the States in Dublin Dr Pepper. This bottler in Texas still uses cane sugar, and it is available year-round.

The question is, do people who like diet soda like brussels sprouts? (I confess I like them and fiddleheads, an other vegetable many don't care for)

Canadian diet pops taste quite different than in the US. Whenever I go home I tend to go pop free for the most part.

What Geoff Arnold said.

Speaking for myself, I know *exactly* why diet sodas taste like crap, for me. I think I must have a mutation in a taste receptor -- aspartame, acesulfame-K, all the varieties/brands of phenylalanine-based sweeteners don't taste sweet to me past the first few seconds of super-sweet overload. Then the taste morphs into something HORRIBLE. It's a weird sort of very strong sour-bitter nastiness which seems to cling to my tongue for hours -- seriously, I'm tasting the stuff for 1 1/2 - 2 hours after I first have it in my mouth, and even brushing my tongue doesn't rid me of it.

What's bad is that it isn't just diet sodas. It's *everything* that uses these sweeteners, including all the things that advertise like they're full-fat, but use aspartame to supplement the sugar because it's cheaper.

Frankly, I'm not a big fan of the widespread use of aspartame in such a wide range of stuff anyway. Given that we have had a PKU baby in the family, I have to wonder -- what happens to PKU babies when they grow up, past the point where we would ordinarily worry about their diets, when faced with such huge (compared to what diets used to be, I mean) amounts of phenylalanine in their diet? How does it affect them physiologically? Do they still risk neurological damage?

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

I don't know what this says about me and my appearance, but servers at restaurants insist on bring me Diet Coke (or Diet Pepsi) unless I constantly stress regular when I order my drink. Saying "Coke" along does not do it. And even when I order a "regular Coke", the server will bring me a diet cola for my refill unless I reiterate "regular" when offered a second round. Since I'm not obese, I figure it must be something about my demographic. Is it true that all middle-aged white males who lunch alone prefer diet soft drinks? Something like that must be going on. Even the place where I'm a semi-regular, a restaurant near my college campus, still makes this mistake way too often. Drives. Me. Nuts.

And I really, really hate that nasty diet stuff.

I am firmly in Luna the Cat's camp. The last time that I had a diet soda (I did not check the label carefully enough when I picked the bottle up), it took about two hours for the nastiness to wear off. Yuck. I would emphasise that mouth-feel will not do that. It is the flavour of the stuff, really.

On the other hand, I love Brussels sprouts. Thus, I suspect that, if there is a correlation between preferences in aspartame and sprouts, it is not immensely strong.

By Opisthokont (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

I had high hopes for sucralose (Splenda), and it's in almost everything in the grocery stores in California; but it tastes strangely sweet, just enough different from regular sugar to be annoying.
I have developed a taste for coffee without adding sugar at all -- a latte with fat free milk is sweet enough because the warmed milk is a little sweeter than cold milk.
I had heard that there is a genetic componant to "tasting" the bitterness in artificial sweeteners the same as for tasting bitterness in brussels sprouts, but it is not necessrily the same gene. I can also curl my tongue -- but I have not heard that the tongue curling, artificial sweetener tasting, and brussels sprouts tasting are all related. :-)

I can taste the artificial sweeteners too, but the vast majority of the reason that I stay away from them (aspartame in particular) is that they give me blinding headaches.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

I, too, can taste aspartame and dislike it. It also gives me terrible headaches. Soft drinks with sugar are too sweet, artificially sweetened taste horrible (and the headaches) - so juice, tea, coffee or water for me, please (no milk - blech!).


By Chardyspal (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

I can readily tell the difference between regular and diet cola-flavored soda, but not between citrusy ones (e.g., Mountain Dew).

The real question is, do bees congregate around spent cans of soda containing sucralose or aspartame? I bet that pisses them right off, or at least addles them.

Mouthfeel might be a minor issue, but taste is obviously the #1 issue. The article blithely claims artificial sweeteners are virtually identical to sugar, but I literally don't know a single person who can't distinguish at least one of aspartame, ascesulfame, or sucralose from sugar. I've also met at least one person for each sweetener who finds it nasty to the point they'd rather have unsweetened whatever.

The nasty tastes involved are different and different people have different preferences. Some like aspartame but not sucralose and others vice versa, so it's definitely not one gene. I've also met some people who find aspartame mildly disagreeable and a few who find it totally disgusting so I suspect there's more than one tasting variability for that alone. All 3 have similar mouthfeels (ie same as the unsweetened base since they're so concentrated) so mouthfeel can't be a major problem. (Cane sugar does have a mouthfeel albeit different from corn syrup.)

I can actually distinguish all three. I personally like the taste of aspartame and sucralose but ascesulfame has that saccharin bitterness to me (yes, I know not everybody tastes the bitterness of saccharin but most do). I can still tell a difference between either sucralose or aspartame and sugar, even though I find the tastes agreeable.

By Curt Adams (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink

Wow, so it's not just me! Cool!

Seriously, I think that these people must seriously underestimate the taste-sense variability that is out there for various sources of "sweet".

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 29 Apr 2007 #permalink

"mouth feel"? eh, maybe. Aspertame literally tastes like cow shit to me. Not strongly of cow shit but I have been around enough cows to know cow shit when I get a whiff. I am talking about meadow-raised cows. Feedlot cows smell far worse.

I'm out here on one of the tail ends of the distribution: I will not drink soda because I hate the texture and taste of corn syrup.

Aspertame literally tastes like cow shit to me. Not strongly of cow shit but I have been around enough cows to know cow shit when I get a whiff.

You noticed that too? I couldn't tell if Diet Pepsi really did have a slight eau de shit, or if that was just association built up from drinking it in close proximity to cowshit. Now I know.

Mouth feel: Home brewers sometime add Malto-dextrin to home brewed beer for additional/improved mouth feel in heavier beers. Might have to pick up some at the home brew shop next time I'm getting ingredients and try adding it to a diet cola.

However I would add that I prefer the taste/texture of diet cola to their non diet counterparts. Regular colas have a cloying sweetness to them that I don't get from diet. Of course I could simply be proof that you get used to anything, I've been drinking diet sodas for 30 years now, going back to the original Tab Cola.

I hated diet soda, but switched during highschool due to the quantity I was drinking. Now I cant stand regular soda, too sweet. You are accustom to the taste, thus the crap. Now repeat the test with diet soda drinkers, very different outcome.

Greensmile: I'll take your word on the taste of cow shit... :P

Anyway, I definitely notice a decrease in sweetness in Diet colas, and the taste is somewhat bitter as well. Hmm...

I can taste in minute quantities, and utterly despise, the chemicals aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose. I also want to scrub my tonsils after eating anything made with the natural sweetener stevia.

I like the sugar alcohols (xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, maltitol, etc.). But the one I like best is a naturally produced sugar alcohol called erythritol that has the bulk of sugar, can be cooked with just like sugar, and has little to none of the laxative effect of the other sugar alcohols. It's about 70 percent as sweet as sugar, so it's perfect for people who have cut back on sugar for a while and have lost a lot of their sweet tooth. My information says it is safe for diabetics and contains a vanishingly small number of calories. It tastes like powdered sugar... that is, like pure sugar with a bit of the cool feeling.

You can tell I'm really sold on the stuff. I'd like it to become much more widely used, and much less expensive, so I plug it constantly. :) The Honeyville Grain website had it the cheapest last time I checked around.

By speedwell (not verified) on 17 May 2007 #permalink

Oops on closing that bold tag, sorry.

By speedwell (not verified) on 17 May 2007 #permalink

I live in the Pacific Northwest and have been able to buy Coke from Mexico, so one needn't necessarily be near the border. If you live in an area with a lot of Mexican grocery stores, try them.

It seriously tastes different with real sugar. I hadn't drunk Coke in years, regular or diet, because I didn't like the taste.

In Thailand (and presumably elsewhere in southeast Asia), Coke and Pepsi are sweetened with palm sugar. Very tasty.

By G. Williams (not verified) on 17 May 2007 #permalink

I think Brook is right - you get used to diet and then can't stand regular. My wife and I, regular Diet Coke drinkers, accidentally got a regular Coke a few days ago. Both of us disliked the taste.

I'm like Brooke as well. As a steady drinker of Pepsi One, I can't stand non-diet soda any more.

I learned not to mind diet soda when I started worrying about both my weight and my teeth. I try not to drink a lot of it, though, because, to paraphrase Michael Pollan, it's not food.

There are really only two kinds of diet soda that I actually like:

* Citrus flavors, since tart things seem to mask the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners.
* Coke Zero, which tastes as much like regular Coke as a diet soda possibly can.

Anyway, for the most part, I drink seltzer now -- either plain, flavored, or mixed with a little fruit juice.

It tastes like "crap" cuz you have an imagination that is so powerfull that you believe it tastes like crap. You confuse "tasting the differece", even the very slight difference, by equating it with crap. It IS all in your head and you might want to get real over that and toss out those old food neurosises (only whiney babies have those still when they become technically adult) and consider using your discretionary powers of taste to elevate yourself as to how you judge yourown physiology of taste and sense. What's surprising is your sense of violation at how the soda if there is only one way. You've been duped by the marketing mavens of modern food producers.

why drink any of that stuff? It is all bad for you and is an addictive junk food that adds to your fatness...try water. Just plain good old water. You don't even need the over-rated bottled water in most places in the U.S, where we are lucky enough to have safe good water to drink. Think Crap. Think Addiction. Think FAT when you reach for soda--ugh

By nate zuckerman (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink