Over on his website here the other day, Mark Evanier linked to an article by Jeff Wells on the Mental_Floss website about the long, convoluted and unfortunate history of Royal Crown Cola.
The story tells about how little Royal Crown fought a tough, uphill battle against Coca Cola and Pepsi, and started to have some success with its Nehi brands, and then its RC Cola -- and then knocked the two leaders for a loop when it introduced Diet Rite, the first national diet soft drink. Diet Rite was going incredibly strong, when the concerned sugar industry pushed a couple of studies that showed how the sweetener additive, cyclamate, caused cancer in laboratory animals, and in 1969 cyclamates were banned, and the diet soft drink industry plummeted. And so did Diet Rite and with it the parent company Royal Crown, which compounded its problems with errors of judgement. The diet soft drink industry eventually recovered, as Coke and Pepsi not only came up with new sweeteners that weren't problematic, but also reformulated their recipes for much-tastier beverages. But alas, by this point, Royal Crown was left in the dust.
The full article is very good and far more detailed, so checking it out through Mark's website is well-worth your time. But I mention this all because of a related memory.
As I was reading the article and saw where I knew it was leading, to the point about cyclamates, I had to laugh. That's because our family did something probably few other families did in the country. Few as in "next to none."
My dad was always just a bit overweight, not much, but enough to make one concession and that was he liked Tab, made by the Coca Cola company. But of course, with the cyclamate problem, all diet soft drinks -- including his favorite Tab -- would be taken off the market on a certain date in 1969, a few months in the future, after the upcoming ban was announced.
The thing is, my dad, Ed, was a doctor, and for fun he read medical journals. No, really. He almost never watched series TV -- he watched sports, and various things on public television, and an occasional big special, but that was about it. He almost never even watched a single episode of network TV, but he never watched "a series." (I think he liked the classic Your Show of Show series with Sid Caesar, but until I introduced him to Northern Exposure -- about a doctor -- 40 years later, that was about it. He read books, newspapers and listened to music, went to the theater (rarely movies), the symphony, played golf and tennis, and traveled. But he especially loved reading medical journals.
And one of the things he read were those studies about cyclamates. And I always remembering him saying that the studies were ridiculous. That if you looked at them (which no one did unless you read medical journals for fun), you'd see that the amount of cyclamates a person would have to drink in order to match the level ingested by the laboratory animals was something like 500 bottles -- a day. Every day. For several years. "And if a person did that," he said, "they would die of kidney failure long before they ever got cancer."
And so, as a result, he instructed everybody in our family to do the opposite of what the rest of the country was doing -- he said that whenever any of us were in a grocery store, we were to stock up on as much diet Tab (with cyclamates) as we could get in our shopping carts. Again, every time we were in a grocery. After school, I might ride my bike to a grocery store to get a treat...but I'd come out loaded with as much Tab as I could hold in my front basket. When I'd be in a store with my mother, try to imagine the disbelieving looks of the cashiers (and other gawking people in line) as they were all vividly avoiding diet soft drinks with cyclamates like the Plague (almost literally), and here was a shopping cart that had a dozen six-packs of the stuff crammed in it. "Are you sure you're getting all that??" was the most common phrase we heard. And we heard it a lot. Because...every time we were in a grocery store, we loaded up on Tab.
By the time cyclamates went off the market, our storage room was so loaded with Tab that we still had it for probably eight years after. Honestly. (In part, this was because only my dad really loved Tab that much, so he was mainly the one drinking most of it. And he didn't guzzle the stuff, but only usually had a bottle at a time, and only a few times a week. So...it lasted.) When the new Tab eventually hit the market, he didn't care for it as much. And he was so used to the original. So, he happily stuck with our big stash -- not just because it was already bought, but he simply preferred it. When it finally ran out, he reluctantly moved on to the new concoction.
Whenever people came to our house during this period, and they saw my dad drinking a Tab (with cyclamates) they were understandably aghast. (We didn't usually offer it. "Hey, would you like orange juice, Coke, or a diet Tab with cyclamates?!" But there it was, anyway. You couldn't not notice it, since it was one of the few bottles remaining in existence.) I had to explain to my friends the reason we had it -- "My dad says..." -- and then I usually showed them our storage room with the world's largest cache of Tab, outside of the Royal Crown returns warehouse. And after a certain point, when they finally had gotten rid of it all somehow, eliminating it with the care usually given to nuclear waste, we may have had the most.
So, as I said, I was thinking about this as I read the article. And then I got to the following paragraph, and almost fell out of my chair laughing and cheering with joy --
According to [writer Tristan] 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.
My dad was right!!! Almost spot-on right!! In all honesty, I always believed him -- hey, I kept drinking the Tab on occasion, too -- but it was hard explaining this to others. I simply didn't have the data. "My dad says..." was the best I could do. And how many children in the history of the world have used that expression...and lost the argument. But finally -- the proof! Actual written evidence! O huzzah!
All those bottles of Tab that my family and I bought were not in vain.
(By the way, the article also discussed how two such dubious studies could be admissible and get a substance banned. It has to do with a little-known rule known as the Delaney Clause. “The Delaney Clause was a very well-intentioned but poorly thought-out law,” author Tristan Delaney notes. Again, the article goes into more detail about this.).
There was one other thing in the article that was particularly fun for me on a personal level. As I read the article about the demise of Royal Crown, I was scratching my head because as a kid growing up in the Chicago area I always sort of liked RC Cola and would sometimes prefer it to Coke. And so I was also surprised to hear of the demise. I hadn't seen the beverage much over the years, needless-to-say, but didn't know it was gone.
It turns out it's not. And it turns out that there's a reason for my reaction. Mr. Wells writes --
So who drinks RC Cola these days? In addition to its southern fans, the brand has a presence in Chicago, where it’s served at Bears games and at pizzerias throughout the city, which often give out a free liter with orders. According to Encyclopizzeria, that arrangement began back in the '60s, when a creative local bottler got in good with local pie shops, figuring the pairing of RC and deep dish pizza would generate good vibes with customers. It did, and today many a Chicagoan has a soft spot for the underdog cola.
And I was right!! Royal Crown isn't gone. And there's an actual, valid reason why I thought it's still around! Because for the past many decades, all the times whenever I'd be in Chicago, several times a year there was Royal Crown -- there is Royal Crown -- everywhere.
It's a good soft drink. And I'm glad to know, despite its deep fade, that it's still around.
But I'm most glad that I now have the proof to all those horrified, skeptical looks from friends and strangers that my dad, Edward I. Elisberg, M.D., was...right!!!
In June, he'll be celebrating his 95th birthday. Clearly, drinking all that Tab suited him just fine...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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