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Diet Soda: New Sunkist TEN, RC Cola TEN, and A&W TEN Are Worth a Try
The idea of cutting weak with strong is hardly unique in the beverage world; coffee fiends have been doing it with caffeine and booze-hounds with alcohol for ages. If the stuff that delivers the kick is interfering with your health, well-being, or ability to stand up without falling over, you just strip it to the bare minimum amount required to make it palatable. Works like a charm—which is why it's such a surprise that the soda mavens took so long to catch on. Home-brewed versions of the idea, where health-conscious tipplers spiked their diet drinks with just a shot of the sugary stuff, have been around as long as the suicide; but the concept didn't get an officially licensed imprimatur until 2004, when Coca-Cola introduced the late, lamented C2, essentially a diet and a regular Coke joined together in chemical matrimony.
C2 didn't last, but the idea had legs; it kept dieters and diabetics from overdosing on the sweet stuff while masking the noxious taste of most artificial sweeteners. The good folks at Dr. Pepper successfully revived the formula in 2010 with the roll-out of Dr Pepper TEN, which managed the difficult feat of retaining the taste of the original while keeping the sugar to a ten-calorie minimum; it's one of the most accomplished combos of corn syrup and sucralose around, managing to keep the tang and crispness of a true sweetener while reigning in the caloric content. It worked out so well that the Dr Pepper/Snapple group is test-marketing an ambitious expansion of the line, featuring "mid-calorie" versions of 7 Up, A&W root beer, Sunkist orange soda, Canada Dry ginger ale, and RC cola.
Since the original Dr. Pepper TEN had strong repeat business, and helped boost sales during an otherwise down year, the line expansion is being pushed with heavy marketing support; I found a rack containing two-liter bottles of every new item at my local HEB store and picked up one of each. All in the name of science!
I'm not much of a fan of the original version, so 7Up TEN wasn't exactly my jam; it kept up the concept of quashing the artificiality of lo-cal drinks, but it still retained the watery quality and tendency to flatten out too soon. It was also a bit heavy-feeling, with a syrupy weight that didn't work for me.
A&W TEN, on the other hand, was a treat—it had a strong, creamy head, and cutting the sweetness allowed some of the more subtle flavors in the soda to stand out. It's not going to win any authenticity medals, as there's still a lot of artificial stand-ins floating around in it, but lowering the HFCS count made it a bit cleaner-tasting and allowed the vanilla flavor to really come to the surface.
Sunkist TEN also took advantage of the "mid-calorie" gimmick; one of my persistent problems with mainstream orange sodas is that they hide the citrus zestiness under a mountain of sweetness, and this one sidestepped that issue neatly. If you're a fan of orange soda pop, you'll want to investigate this one.
I'm a booster of the regular Canada Dry ginger ale, which neatly fills the happy medium between authentic ginger beers like Reed's and stronger, tarter 'gold' ginger ales like Vernor's; that said, there wasn't anything particularly surprising about Canada Dry TEN. It was the one item in the line that didn't really seem to change much with the formula, tasting more or less like a diet ginger ale. Still, it might be useful in its familiar role as a mixer; it's light and crisp enough to impart flavor while lessening the caloric heft of your favorite adult beverage. Whether that makes you drunker is another issue.
The real test would be a swig of Royal Crown TEN. I've always liked RC, both for its taste and its status as the scrappy little backwoods competitor to Coke and Pepsi, eking out a niche in the soda-saturated south. Unfortunately, the various diet iterations of RC have always been a disaster, so I was pleased that RC TEN followed the precedent set by its Dr. Pepper predecessor: full-flavored and almost completely evocative of the sweetened original, with a fraction of the calorie count. It's probably not going to set the cola world on fire, since RC is still America's fifth choice, but it's nice to know they finally got a low-cal version right for when you get the craving.
Of course, I can't finish a column about the TEN line without mentioning the worst thing about it: its condescending and sexist ad campaign. Unfortunately, the Dr. Pepper TEN ads proved pretty popular with that segment of America's dude-bro population who thinks healthful living saps your masculinity, so the company is set it with the line extension. Then again, what worked for Dr. Pepper might not work elsewhere; I can't imagine a hyper-aggressive, machismo-soaked ad campaign for ginger ale. TEN is a good move for sodas; I hope they can keep it going without resorting to such lunkheaded sales pitches.