About eight years ago, in response to customer concerns about potential health risks associated with the artificial sweetener aspartame, PepsiCo decided to remove the ingredient from its popular diet soda.
Sales failed. A year later, aspartame returned to Diet Pepsi.
Today, the first three ingredients listed in the small print on the back of cans and bottles of Diet Pepsi—and on its competitor Diet Coke—are water, caramel color, and aspartame.
A trip through the grocery store reveals the ingredients on the labels of diet soft drinks, as well as diet teas, sugar-free gum, sugar-free energy drinks, and diet lemonade mixes. By some estimates, thousands of products contain aspartame.
The use of aspartame, often known by the brand name Equal, in food and beverage products has long been under scrutiny. The latest iteration came on Thursday, when a World Health Organization agency announced that aspartame can cause cancer and encouraged people who consume a large number of drinks containing aspartame to switch to water or other unsweetened beverages.
But even with the advent of many new artificial sweeteners, as well as plant and fruit-based ones, Big Food can’t quite quit aspartame, and analysts don’t expect it to until this time. This is because the ingredient is one of the less expensive sugar alternatives to use, it works especially well in drinks and mixes, and people love the way it tastes.
There was also dissent over the urgency of the WHO declaration. In a swift rebuke, the FDA said it disagreed with the findings, reaffirming its position that aspartame is safe. A second WHO panel said a person weighing 150 pounds would need to drink more than ten cans of diet cola a day to exceed the safe limit for the sweetener.
“Large beverage companies have been doing contingency planning for months, experimenting with different types of sweeteners, with the goal of making the taste and quality of diet drinks as consistent as possible with existing products,” said Garrett Nelson, who covers the beverage industry. in CFRA Research. But he said they are unlikely to change the prescription unless they see a significant drop in consumer demand based on the WHO report.
“If consumers really stop buying Diet Coke because of this report, if sales start to plummet, then it may be time to go to Plan B,” Nelson said.
Coca-Cola referred questions to the American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm of the industry. “Aspartame is safe,” Kevin Kane, the organization’s interim president, said in a statement.
PepsiCo did not respond to questions for comment, but in an interview with Bloomberg Markets that aired Thursday, Hugh F. Johnston, PepsiCo’s chief financial officer, said he didn’t expect a huge reaction from consumers.
“I think, in fact, that this wouldn’t be much of an issue with consumers based on the preponderance of the evidence indicating that aspartame is safe,” said Mr. Johnston.
The WHO agency’s assessment adds to consumers’ confusion about aspartame, but it’s also the latest in a recent series of research focused on the potential risks and questioning the true benefits of artificial sweeteners. A few weeks ago, who advised against Using artificial sweeteners for weight control, saying that a review of studies did not show a long-term benefit in reducing body fat in children or adults. The review also suggested that sweeteners were associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
This year, researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a Stady Which found a chemical formed after the digestion of another sweetener, sucralose, breaks down DNA and may contribute to health problems.
For years, food and beverage companies and regulators have decried research that raises questions about artificial sweeteners, arguing broadly that the studies were flawed or inconclusive or that the health risks were minimal.
“A large body of scientific evidence shows that low-calorie, no-calorie sweeteners provide effective and safe options for reducing your sugar and calorie intake,” Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, the lobbying association for manufacturers and suppliers of nearly two dozen alternative sweeteners, said in a statement. Statement via email on Thursday.
In fact, most food and beverage companies that use aspartame are reluctant to switch in part because aspartame is less expensive than other alternatives and is 200 times as expensive as sugar, which means a little goes a long way.
said Glenn Roy, associate professor of organic chemistry at Vassar College who has spent more than three decades working for food companies, including NutraSweet, General Foods and PepsiCo.
Moreover, the FDA approved aspartame in 1974, giving companies decades of data and information about what aspartame can and cannot do in products. For example, it can enhance and extend the flavors of certain fruits, such as cherry and orange, making it a preferred sweetener for beverages and chewing gum. But when heated, aspartame loses its sweetness, making it undesirable for baked or cooked products.
Food and beverage companies are introducing new sugar-free or low-sugar products in response to consumer demand, but many are made using newer sweeteners, or blends of sweeteners. Each new product undergoes a series of sensory and flavor tests before it is released.
But for products that have been around for decades, such as diet soft drinks, loyal customers are used to a certain taste and can be turned off by changes in ingredients, the scientists warn.