Grasping at Straws: RC Cola

Welcome to Grasping at Straws, the weekly blog where the unheralded, the underappreciated, and the long forgotten get their time to shine! Each week, I will “make the case” for an unpopular opinion regarding any topic or category of culture and life. Suggestions for future topics will be taken and considered at any of Sour Power’s social media channels, but please, keep it classy.

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Uber and Lyft. iOS and Android. HBO and Showtime…Coke and Pepsi?

Wrong. I’m here to tell you that the two “giants” of the soda industry do not belong with all the other notorious dual pillars of their respective fields. I’m here to tell you that RC Cola belongs in the same sentence as Coke and Pepsi. I’m here to tell you that RC Cola is every bit as important as Coke and Pepsi when it comes to telling the story of the soft drink.

The same cola that many of you probably know as “that random soda they had at a pool party in 6th grade” is actually the most innovative brand in the history of soft drinks and very deserving of your respect and adoration. No longer will RC Cola’s reputation as “the other cola” be allowed to stand. Justice is about to be served, and it’s going to be served ice-cold in a 12-ounce bottle.

After Claud A. Hatcher invented and developed a series of moderately successful soft drinks as an alternate to Coke in the early 1900s, his successor H.R. Mott introduced the Royal Crown Cola in 1934. By the 1950s, Royal Crown Cola was a nationally recognized brand with advertisements featuring some of the country’s biggest stars, including Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, and Shirley Temple. RC Cola was a fixture in American culture, particularly in the South, where having a Moon Pie and an RC Cola was the standard “working man’s lunch,” solidified with Big Bill Lister’s 1951 classic “Gimme an RC Cola and a Moon Pie“. Lister was perhaps best known for his association with the legendary Hank Williams, more recently of Yodeling Kid Mason Ramsey fame, as well as being 6-foot-7 (without his cowboy hat and boots). And just listen to that rhythm! Big Billy makes your feet tap and head nod way more than “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ever could, even if Don Draper apparently came up with the idea for it.

In 1954, RC Cola introduced the first ever diet cola, called Diet Rite, which shook up the entire soda game. Diet Rite was an immediate hit among increasingly calorie-conscious consumers thanks to extensive research done by Royal Crown, who had staged public taste tests across the country pitting RC against competitors Coke and Pepsi and declared itself the winner. It was the first time a beverage company had ever done such a promotion. Sure, we don’t quite know how credible the testing was, but what mattered was that people believed them.

Furthermore, Coke and Pepsi had no clue this revolution was coming; they weren’t even developing a diet cola when Diet Rite dropped. It was basically equivalent to T-Pain scoring hit after hit while leaning all the way into Auto-Tune while no other pop artist (save for maybe Cher) was even considering how effective it could be. Royal Crown wasn’t content with just one innovation, however. In the following years, they also debuted the the first caffeine-free diet cola (RC 100) and the first diet cherry cola (Diet Cherry RC).

The momentum created by Diet Rite would have propelled Royal Crown onto the same level as Coke and Pepsi if not for the ban in 1969 on Diet Rite’s main ingredient cyclamate, an artificial sweetener that was the key to Diet Rite’s signature flavor. The ban proved to be cataclysmic, as Royal Crown’s sales fell off a cliff as many people began associating diet soda with cancer and avoiding it at all costs.

If you’re a fan of conspiracies, you’re going to love this and immediately sympathize with RC Cola: it’s widely theorized that the sugar industry poured money into studies and tests to find a way to take down diet sodas. They feared that diet sodas would take over and sugar would no longer be needed by soft drink companies, so they exploited a legal loophole called the Delaney Clause to make cyclamate consumers’ #1 enemy. The Delaney Clause required the FDA to ban any additive found to “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.”

However, it didn’t outline restrictions on the amount of a certain ingredient that could be tested. No matter if it was a teaspoon or trough, if it proved hazardous to human or animal health, the ingredient had to be pulled. Someone would’ve had to drink 500 diet drinks in a day to consume the amount of cyclamate pumped into the animals in those tests, meaning the results released to the public were incredibly misleading. Simply put, RC Cola got screwed.

Over the last 50 years, RC Cola gradually faded out of the minds of the majority of American consumers. Coke and Pepsi’s “cola wars” of the 1980s effectively ended any chance for Royal Crown to rise above a distant third. There were still some brave souls out there who stayed loyal to the Crown despite the social pressure to conform to a two-cola system, but for the most part RC’s once-promising heights became an increasingly distant memory.

Nowadays, RC Cola is owned by Keurig Dr. Pepper, which means if you have a Keurig machine at your home you’re obligated to drink RC Cola (that’s how it works, right?). Despite its inability to continue to prosper over time, RC Cola is still here. The brand’s resolve and persistence is borderline remarkable considering Coke and Pepsi’s dominance, as well as the overall decline of soda sales recently. It’s the Atlantis of soft drinks, although I feel as if the luster of its mystique and former prominence is being lost among each new generation.

Coke and Pepsi’s sales are unquestioned, but isn’t it at least a little boring to only drink one or the other at this point? It’s not like they are the most exciting and cutting-edge companies out there anyway. One once thought slapping the word “New!” on cans would fix all their problems, the other was originally called “Brad’s Drink.” Meanwhile, RC literally stands for “Royal Crown.” It’s the nectar of kings and queens; it should be an honor any time you even have the opportunity to take a sip of RC Cola. We should be looking at cans of RC Cola the same way Meghan Markle looked at Prince Harry at their wedding. RC is like the boyfriend you broke up with because he wasn’t dangerous enough, then later realize you made a mistake because he never actually did anything wrong unlike all these dangerous guys who keep burning you. There’s something to be said for consistency and security.

Start appreciating the nice guy more. He cares. RC Cola cares.

The next time you go to a supermarket and RC Cola isn’t populating the shelves, just know that it’s a true American tragedy. We had it all, and then we threw it away. Three distinct cola options were apparently too much for us to handle, and somehow RC Cola was the one we sacrificed. It’s a crime that will forever go unpunished, and may never be forgiven.

Or maybe, maybe, I’m just grasping at straws.


Credit to’s “The Tragic History of RC Cola” for several details referenced in this post.