When pressed about the recent decline in US diet soda consumption during its Q3 earnings call earlier this week, Steve Cahillane, president of Coca-Cola Americas, admitted that Diet Coke is starting to feel the pinch as a result of continuing consumer concern about aspartame.
“Diet Coke is like a lot of diet products in the United States, and not just beverages but across the whole array of food, are under a bit of pressure as people are questioning ingredients, ingredient safety and so forth,” said Cahillane.
Coca-Cola uses two artificial sweeteners in its Diet Coke, Coke Zero and other diet products - aspartame and acesulfame-k.
Aspartame was first approved in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981, and to this day is one of the country's most widely-used artificial sweeteners. The American Cancer Society does not associate aspartame use with an increased risk of cancer, and the American Heart Association supports the moderate use of artificial sweeteners.
The Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI), however, does not recommend the use of aspartame. Referencing past studies, the CSPI says that that aspartame has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and it shouldn’t be in the food supply.
“There are headwinds”
Despite these consumer concerns, Coca-Cola is focusing on securing Diet Coke's position in the US carbonated soft drinks (CSD) market.
“We believe very strongly in the future of Diet Coke, the number two sparkling brand in the United States,” said Cahillane. “We are actually seeing increased incidence in the past quarter between 19 and 24 year olds. We think a lot of that has to do with the exciting new promotions with Taylor Swift, some of the new packaging we are bringing in the marketplace and increased focus on Diet Coke.”
“There are headwinds that we are facing, and we face headwinds in a lot of different areas, in a lot of different places and this is just one of them," Cahillane said. "But last year it became the second best-selling sparkling in the United States and we are continuing to focus on it.”
“Coke Zero also a part of our zero-calorie portfolio grew mid-single digits in the quarter. So we are very happy about that. We’ve got a great program around Coke Zero.”
“It’s really becoming ever more relevant with young males," Cahillane added.
“Safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar”
In August 2013, Atalanta-based Coca-Cola initiated its latest attempt to offset these consumer concerns about the safety of aspartame with a new ad campaign.
“Our use of high-quality, low- and no-calorie sweeteners, including aspartame, allows us to give people great tasting options they can feel good about. Time and again, these low- and no-calorie sweeteners have shown to be safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar," said the advert.
"In fact, the safety of aspartame is supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years,” it added.
Responding the advert, the CSPI said that Coca-Cola would have been "better off phasing out its use of aspartame and accelerating its research into safer, natural sweeteners such as those extracted from the stevia plant."