The folks at mental_floss have come up with something called “The Tragic History of Royal Crown Cola”, and as a genuine RC fan, I read it, wincing as I went along, and while I didn’t weep into my beverage, I did occasionally make regretful-sounding noises.
I have no idea if Lucy actually drank this stuff in 1946, when The Dark Corner was released, but at the time, Royal Crown — they, meaning Nehi, the drink’s parent company, had only just adopted “RC” as a nickname — was on a roll:
In 1944, the courts ruled that Coke did not, in fact, own the word “cola,” thus allowing Royal Crown to become Royal Crown Cola, or RC Cola. With nationwide distribution and sales on the up and up, Nehi shoveled money into print and television ads featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball. “You Bet RC Tastes Best!” magazine ads crowed. And this wasn’t just an empty boast: Nehi 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. Whether or not the tests were rigged in some way is up for debate; what mattered was that people believed them.
And hey, it’s not like anyone paid attention to the Pepsi Challenge.
RC was a Southern drink, first concocted in Columbus, Georgia, and it was in the South Carolina lowcountry where I first discovered it, as an adjunct to rock and/or roll: the leading Top 40 station in the area gave away tons of the stuff, in the form of store coupons for a six-pack, and in those days, I could dial a phone with the best of them.
The “tragedy” apparently was caused by RC’s sister product, Diet Rite Cola, formulated in 1958 and sweetened with that miracle stuff, cyclamate, which was declared Very Bad For You a decade later:
Controversy developed when, in 1966, a study reported that some intestinal bacteria could desulfonate cyclamate to produce cyclohexylamine, a compound suspected to have some chronic toxicity in animals. Further research resulted in a 1969 study that found the common 10:1 cyclamate:saccharin mixture to increase the incidence of bladder cancer in rats. The released study was showing that eight out of 240 rats fed a mixture of saccharin and cyclamates, at levels of humans ingesting 350 cans of diet soda per day, developed bladder tumors.
Too much risk, said the FDA, always mindful of rat health. RC, which then had almost 10 percent of the soft-drink market, went into a slow, then a not-so-slow, decline. There was one two-liter bottle left at the supermarket tonight, and I grabbed it.