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My life as a Diet Coke enthusiast and connoisseur

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


Four words, one question, and it’s enough to make me cringe.

“Is Diet Pepsi OK?”

My response is simple, just four more words.

“I’ll just have water.”

I’m not sure when I first became an avid Diet Coke drinker. I wish I could tell you a story about my first can, a story about how I knew with that first sip that my life had been changed.

All I have is a story about the time when I was 13 years old and my parents went on a diet. Micah and I weren’t required to go on the diet, but they tried to keep banned foods and beverages out of the house—and no aspartame meant no Diet Coke.

I don’t consider myself an addict (more on that later) but Diet Coke has been, for as long as I can remember, my drink of choice. Not having Diet Coke in the house just wasn’t going to fly. Little Leah didn’t want to ask her parents to be tempted by the evils of aspartame, so what did I do? Grabbed my wallet and my babysitting money, walked to the grocery store (only a few blocks away, but it was the middle of summer and I’d never had to walk there before), and bought a 12-pack. And hid it in my closet. Sipping one glorious can each day after school up in my room alone, until my mom found out. I’m pretty sure she laughed for days and offered to reimburse me. From then on, the house always had Diet Coke.

The most controversial moment of my life? I was at Solea for dinner last fall with my mother and two of my friends. The waitress brought me a glass of what was supposed to be Diet Coke. I took one sip, and set it down. The next time the waitress walked by, I called her over, and very politely said: “Excuse me, I ordered a Diet Coke, I think this is regular Coke.” For the record, I did not think it was regular Coke. She looked at me, smiled, and said she was “pretty sure” it was Diet, but she would get me a new one. My face retained its nice, Ohio-born smile, but around me, the jaws of the three people who know me best fell to the table.

As soon as the waitress was out of earshot, I turned to them as they audibly exhaled. “Regular Coke?” I asked them. “Please. I can tell you if my Diet Coke came from a can, a fountain, a large bottle or a small bottle. I know the difference between Coke and Diet Coke. That. Was not. Diet Coke.” As it turned out, the second glass she brought me was Diet Coke, and everything was fine.

I know a lot about Diet Coke. I follow it on Twitter (@DietCokeUS), I know that phenylketonurics can’t drink it (but not what phenylalanine is) and I have a list in my head ranking Diet Coke by country to which I’ve traveled—Iceland was the best, followed by the USA, Canada, Israel, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Boom. Italy and Germany don’t count because they sell Coke Light—similar to our Coke Zero.

As soon as I got to Brandeis, I was a running joke among my friends. My North Face backpack, luckily, had pockets on each side, and more often than not I had a bottle in each pocket. Sometimes a third in my hand or in my backpack. I vividly remember the day I discovered the one liter bottles at the C-Store. People swore they’d been there forever, but I just don’t know how I could have missed it.

I’ve been called a Diet Coke lover, addict and aficionado. I approve of the first and the last, but not the second. I firmly hold that I’m not an addict and I can easily make it through the day without one. I’m quite adamant about this, but everyone was still considerably shocked last summer when, after throat surgery, I didn’t drink it for three days.

I’m not a caffeine addict either. I don’t get headaches if I go without. It’s actually quite a vicious cycle: I choose Diet Coke over water 99 percent of the time, so I get dehydrated … and thirsty … and I drink more Diet Coke.

When I go out to eat, I rarely bother to check the menu for Coke or Pepsi products. I just order, hoping for the best, and usually that works in my favor.

Every once in a while, though, I hear those four dreaded words.

“Is Diet Pepsi OK?”

No. Diet Pepsi is not OK.

Let me clarify something. I am not a high maintenance person. If a restaurant doesn’t have Diet Coke, I get something else. There have been a few times when I played BYODC, but that’s beside the point.

Let me clarify something else. Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi are not the same and they are not interchangeable. This might be baffling to those of you who don’t drink a lot of “sparkling low calorie soft drink with vegetable extracts with sweeteners” (thanks for that description, Coca-Cola U.K.) but for those of us who do, the taste difference is clear.

Did you know that the Ninety-Nine serves Pepsi products? I didn’t. Until the waitress brought me a Diet Pepsi. My Ohio charm prevented me from sending it back, so I chugged it and, of course, pulled a bottle of Diet Coke out of my purse and poured it into the glass of ice. True story. The waitress never knew.

If you’re buying a car and asked for a Honda Civic, the car dealer wouldn’t say, “Is a Volkswagon Jetta OK?” (I’ve never purchased a car, I can’t confirm this.) A toy store sales clerk wouldn’t say “Oh we don’t have Monopoly, is Clue OK?” With these and countless other examples I could make up with enough time, the person selling you the product wouldn’t just assume that the other was OK. So why are waiters surprised when I don’t want Diet Pepsi?

I did the math, and I think I spent about $700 worth of points on Diet Coke last semester. When you devote the kind of time and energy to something like I have, you earn the right to be discerning. That said, I don’t really know where I want to go with this column, and I’m impressed if you’re still reading.
More likely than not, my love of Diet Coke will probably be my lasting legacy among my friends, but I’m more than OK with that.