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Aspartame out of Pepsi

US: PepsiCo accedes to consumer fears and removes aspartame from Diet Pepsi

Regulators around the globe insist aspartame is safe to use in soft drinks and PepsiCo does not disagree – even as part of its announcement acknowledging that there is no scientific basis for its formula rework – but says its decision is a commercial one, responding to consumer preferences.

Aspartame-free cans of the drink will go on sale from August in America, but not elsewhere. Instead the drinks will be sweetened with sucralose and acesulfame potassium, which is often called Ace K and is currently used in Coke Zero.

The move is a momentous one. Amid one of the most difficult stretches the diet soda business has seen, Pepsi is the first behemoth to acknowledge that big changes are needed to salvage sales. Coca Cola hasn’t so much as hinted at the potential for a sweetener switch, despite shrinking demand for Diet Coke, the best-selling low calorie soft drink in the world.

From a business perspective, the change is fairly intuitive – removing aspartame is the number one request from customers, according to Pepsi. Fears of aspartame first sprouted in the mid 1990s, roughly a decade and a half after the ingredient was approved by the FDA, and have only accelerated since.

But appeasing the public isn’t the same as making a sound scientific choice.

There is actually no definitive evidence that consuming sugar substitutes such as aspartame causes any harm.

A 2006 study found no connection with aspartame consumption and the incidence of cancer. The National Cancer Association agrees: the group states rather clearly on its website that no such association has been proven. So does the NIH. And The European Food Safety Authority, in one of the most comprehensive considerations of aspartame’s effects on the body, concluded that eating aspartame is “safe for human consumption”.

“Decades of studies have shown that aspartame is safe, but the reality is that consumer demand in the US has been evolving,” Seth Kaufman, senior vice president of Pepsi, told Bloomberg. “The US diet cola consumer has been asking and asking and asking for an aspartame-free great diet cola.”

Pepsi (and other diet soda makers, for that matter) is in no position to ignore its customers. Sales of Diet Pepsi have plummeted by roughly 35 percent over the past 10 years.

Diet soda sales graph

Americans on the whole seem to be falling out of love with diet and low calorie soda in general – not aspartame in particular (see graph left, click to enlarge). 

Sales of low calorie soft drinks have tumbled by almost 20 percent over the past five years in the US, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi have been the biggest losers, as pictured in the chart below, but even Coca-Cola Zero has seen sales slow to a halt in recent year. Last year, the brand contracted for the first time, according to Eurmonitor.

But the problem with appeasing customers at the expense of science is that it sets a poor precedent. And in this case it’s also unlikely to reverse Diet Pepsi’s waning appeal.

What Pepsi’s move will likely accomplish, more than anything else, is give credence to unfounded fears that aspartame is somehow more harmful or artificial than a lot of other sweeteners being used in products on supermarket shelves. That myth doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to dying.

Source: BBC, Washington Post

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