Even though it’s just a move intended to help flagging sales, I still consider it a win that PepsiCo Inc. has stopped adding aspartame to its signature brand, Diet Pepsi. Perhaps they’re finally getting the message that ingredients matter to the public.
But is the new Diet Pepsi formula any better? Let’s take a look…
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Aspartame: The latest alternative sweetener casualty
PepsiCo’s move to ditch aspartame was prompted by flagging sales of Diet Pepsi, not by any concern for your health.
Diet soda sales overall have dropped by almost 20% since 2009, when they hit a high of $8.5 billion. According to market research group Euromonitor, they’re likely to continue their downward slide.
On the upside, as the general U.S. public becomes more health-savvy, more people are purchasing vitamin water, flavored teas, and energy drinks (though those drinks have many red flags of their own). Energy drinks alone are expected to climb from $12.5 billion in 2014 to $21.5 billion by 2017, according to projections from market research group Packaged Facts.
The tumbling sales of diet soda are linked to growing consumer awareness about the risks of artificial sweeteners—and especially the widely reported animal studies that show a correlation between aspartame and cancer.
Not that PepsiCo will admit any wrongdoing. The company issued a statement that it stands behind the safety of aspartame, and that’s why they’re going to keep shipping aspartame-laden Diet Pepsi to consumers outside the U.S. The only reason they’re changing it in the U.S. is because of consumer complaints regarding aspartame, though they won’t disclose whether those complaints were about taste or safety concerns.
The taste (awful, in my opinion) hasn’t changed in decades. So if complaints have gone up I expect they’re about the health issue.
PepsiCo’s solution is to switch out aspartame for a blend of sucralose and acesulfame-potassium, typically called Ace K and used in Coke Zero.
Did they trade one evil for another?
Is a blend of sucralose and Ace K any healthier than aspartame? Like aspartame, they’re both artificial. Sucralose is the chemical used in the little yellow sweetener packets branded as Splenda (aspartame is found in the blue packets, branded Equal or NutraSweet).
But get this—sucralose was accidentally discovered by U.K. scientists working to develop new insecticides. The FDA has ruled it safe, but that doesn’t count for much in my book.
According to Michael F. Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “Sucralose is almost certainly safer than aspartame.” Yet studies show it alters the microbiome (the “friendly bacteria”) of the gut and may dissolve into metabolites that can prompt genetic mutations.
Sucralose is meant to be an indigestible compound (and as such, it has no calories). It’s made by adding chlorine to sucrose, which makes for a sweet taste that’s 320 times stronger than natural sucrose, our familiar table sugar.
But a 2013 study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that sucralose may alter blood sugar and insulin levels, meaning it does not just pass through your GI tract with no effect.
As for Ace-K, many researchers believe the chemical needs further testing and research. Ace-K was originally added to formulations as a stabilizer, due to concerns that other artificial sweeteners deteriorated at high temperatures. Mr. Jacobson of the CSPI is not nearly as confident about the safety of this sweetener, pointing out that tests conducted in the 1970s by the manufacturer showed it might pose a cancer risk.
In mid-August, PepsiCo Inc. began shipping the new Diet Pepsi beverage to stores across the U.S. They’re bluntly marketing the revamped recipe as “aspartame free,” which should boost consumer awareness about aspartame’s risks and may push competitor Coke to eventually remove this chemical from its own soda formulations.
Our collective superpower: Consumer backlash
One thing I can say about this is that at least we’re being heard. There’s no question in my mind that Pepsi has ditched aspartame as a result of the drop in sales in the U.S. If they were truly concerned about the health effects, they’d have switched it out in all other countries as well.
But at least the voice of the health-conscious in the U.S. market has reached a critical mass. Health conscious consumers really do have the power to sway the food industry. Your food-buying choices get noticed, and they can reshape what’s stocked on supermarket shelves.
I’d like to think Americans as a group are falling out of love with diet soda, in which case no sweetener-swap-out will change the market trend that spooked Pepsi. We’ll have to wait and see. At any rate, it’s possible the growing consciousness surrounding public health has more power than the naysayers think, because other industry giants are making similar moves.
Just last month, Starbucks announced a plan to start using real pumpkin in their popular fall product, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. It will replace the artificial flavoring and caramel coloring previously used in the drink—a double win for the product’s fans. The coffee chain says they made the switch based on customer requests for more wholesome ingredients.
Over at Panera Bread Co., executives recently made a similar announcement. The Panera pumpkin latte will also debut as a “clean” drink this fall. Reports from the company are that it will contain real pumpkin, “without artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup,” as reported by the Associated Press.
Coincidence, or a glimpse of what’s to come?
By the way—even though drinks like the revised pumpkin latte are healthier as far as chemicals go, they’re still loaded with sugar and dubious milk products. I recommend making your own at home. Just heat vanilla almond milk and a few tablespoons of pumpkin puree for 30 seconds in the microwave, then mix in some cinnamon and a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice. Froth it, add coffee, and you’re good to go.
As for diet sodas, I recommend you give them up entirely. Switching to full-calorie soda does you no good because it sends your body a tsunami of sugar. I gave up soda years ago and don’t miss it a bit. Replace your afternoon soda pop (as we used to call it in Kansas) with a natural-fruit smoothie. It’ll satisfy your sweet cravings, but without corn syrup or refined sugar.