Americans gulp millions of colas daily, but many prefer their drinks without two of the usual ingredients - sugar and caffeine.
Soft drink bottlers have responded. Coca-Cola, the world's No. 1 soda, now comes in caffeine-free and sugar-free varieties. So does Pepsi, RC Cola, and other leading brands.
But who makes the lip-smacking best of these newer colas? Ten Monitor tasters sampled several varieties, and the findings were unexpected.
The winner - by far - was Diet Rite, a brand made by Royal Crown Cola, a company best known in the South and Midwest. As one Monitor taster put it, Diet Rite "tastes closest to a cola."
Unlike some other diet and caffeine-free brands, Diet Rite had a rich taste, virtually no chemical overtones, and left a pleasant aftertaste, panelists reported.
The six caffeine-free brands tested by the panel were Diet Rite, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Sam's Choice (distributed by Wal-Mart), Select Cola (distributed by Safeway), and President's Choice (distributed by Star Market).
Pepsi came in second, followed closely by Sam's.
Coke, which a number of panelists described as "bland," placed a weak fourth in the blind taste-test, just slightly ahead of Select and President's Choice.
Most of the comments about Diet Rite were positive, such as: "Tastes the most like regular Coke." "Has a bite, doesn't leave a bad aftertaste." "Not as sweet, richer."
Diet Pepsi had a lot of support, though it appealed most to testers who preferred drinks on the sweeter side. A number of panelists described Pepsi as "very sweet."
Perhaps most notable was the weak performance of caffeine-free Diet Coke. Not one panelist picked it as a favorite. Most rated it in the bottom half. Among the comments: "Tastes like sugar substitute." "Worst of all." "Strange ... syrupy." "Bland but not awful." "Flat, tasteless." "Bad aftertaste." "Too flat and bland." "Ick - flat and boring." "Very flat."
A spokesman for Triarc Beverage Group, which makes Diet Rite, says their drink was reformulated a year ago. The firm's major goal was to get rid of the chemical aftertaste that consumers often complain about with diet drinks. The newest version of Diet Rite has its greatest popularity in the Midwest, including the Chicago and Cincinnati areas. It is sold in 93 percent of all supermarkets in the United States.
How we tested:
All six colas were chilled to the same temperature. Then they were poured into numbered cups that were placed before each of our 10 panelists. The panelists jotted down their impressions, while also ranking each of the colas from best to worst.
On the winner:
Diet Rite was reformulated a year ago. It has captured only a fraction of America's soft drink market. But a company spokesman says the revamped drink is particularly popular in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Wisconsin.