Aspartame has been deemed safe by all major scientific and regulatory bodies

PepsiCo ditches aspartame from Diet Pepsi in US: ‘While decades of studies show aspartame is safe, we recognize that consumer demand is evolving’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Aspartame will be replaced with sucralose
Aspartame will be replaced with sucralose

Related tags Coca-cola

While aspartame is safe, many US consumers don’t want it in their cola, said PepsiCo this morning, announcing plans to ditch the much-maligned sweetener from Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi in the U.S from August.

Aspartame will be replaced with sucralose, which is also an artificial sweetener, but has not as much bad press, while acesulfame potassium (ace K) will remain in the formula.

Explaining the thinking behind the move, PepsiCo SVP Seth Kaufman, Pepsi & Pepsi Flavors Portfolio, PepsiCo North America Beverages, said the new formulation was developed "after extensive research and testing with US diet cola drinkers​".

He added: “Increasingly, US consumers have been asking for a great tasting cola without aspartame.

“While decades of studies show aspartame is safe, we recognize that consumer demand is evolving and that’s why starting this August Diet Pepsi in the US will be aspartame-free, providing the refreshing and great cola taste cola drinkers have come to expect from Pepsi.”

Aspartame has been deemed safe by all major scientific and regulatory bodies

While aspartame has been deemed safe by all major scientific and regulatory bodies based on analysis of 100+ toxicological and clinical studies, it has repeatedly come under fire from activists and consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which urges shoppers to avoid the sweetener over concerns it may be carcinogenic (click HERE​).

Meanwhile, several retailers including Whole Foods feature aspartame on their lists of ‘unacceptable ingredients’ (click HERE​); General Mills recently removed it from Yoplait Light (click HERE​); and Coke and Pepsi have both launched new lower-calorie colas (Coca-Cola Life and Pepsi True) that use stevia instead of aspartame owing to its more ‘natural’ credentials.

aspartame free
Carbonated soft drinks now account for less than 25% of global revenues, said PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi this week, who noted that: “We’ve never seen the consumer as confused as they are today. A few years ago people were moving to diet sodas. Now they view real sugar as Good for You. They are willing to go to organic non-GMO products even if they are high salt, high sugar, high-fat.”

FDA: ‘You have not identified any scientific data… that would cause the agency to alter its conclusions’

However, the FDA says it has been monitoring the scientific data on aspartame since the 1970s and has not seen anything to change its position that it is “safe for the general population except for individuals with phenylketonuria ​[warning labels about which are mandatory on all products containing the sweetener]”.

Yoplait no aspartame cropped
General Mills, which recently replaced aspartame with sucralose in its Yoplait Light yogurts, said sucralose - which has had its own fair share of negative PR in recent years - “is the best option to replace aspartame” based on consumer taste tests and is “the only low-calorie sweetener that’s made from sugar”.

In a letter ​published on October 24, 2014, responding to a citizen’s petition filed by K. Paul Stoller MD, FACHM, the FDA said that Dr Stoller had not provided any evidence to show that current intakes of aspartame exceed the ADI (acceptable daily intake). It also challenged his interpretation of a 2006 study by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) and said it had not received data it had repeatedly requested from the ERF about studies conducted in 2007 and 2010.

It concluded: “Despite your many assertions, you have not identified any scientific data or other information that would cause the agency to alter its conclusions about the safety of aspartame.”

FDA: Anecdotal accounts of adverse effects of aspartame  … are not supported by scientific evidence

In a letter ​responding to fellow petitioner Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible World Health International, “which is committed to removing the deadly chemical aspartame from our food​”, the FDA said that “anecdotal accounts of adverse effects of aspartame ​[cited in her petition] … are not supported by scientific evidence”​.

Carbonated soft drinks, 2004-2014

Euromonitor, which tracked off trade ready-to-drink beverage volumes from 2004 to 2014, said two things really stood out:

  • The rise of bottled water​ [still, flavored & carbonated], moving from a volume share of 22% in 2004 to 35% in 2014.  
  • The decline of carbonates​… which moved from over a 50% share in 2004 down to just over 37% in 2014.

Consumers, the market researcher told FoodNavigator-USA in February, are “moving away from soda in general and diets in particular, which could be due to concerns about artificial sweeteners or because there are simply so many other beverage options out there now."

Aspartame: There seems to be a gap between perception and reality

From a consumer perspective, meanwhile, aspartame seems to get a bad press regardless of the science, Datamonitor Consumer innovation insights director Tom Vierhile told FoodNavigator-USA last year.

“This is an area of intense controversy and there seems to be a gap between perception and reality. Perhaps because it is an older sweetener that has been on the market longer, aspartame may have attracted more of a negative health perception than sucralose.” 

200 times sweeter than sugar, but with a similar taste profile, aspartame is made from two amino acids, which market leader Ajinomoto describes as "building blocks of protein just like those found naturally in many everyday foods such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs and milk".

CSPI​: Move should​ spur other food and beverage companies to abandon aspartame, including Diet Coke

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has had a long-running campaign against aspartame, said the fact that Diet Pepsi will be specifically marketed as 'Aspartame Free' was "a blunt acknowledgment that consumers have soured on aspartame".

It added:"The new cans should increase consumer awareness even further and spur other food and beverage companies to abandon it (including in Diet Coke)."

While he was concerned that Diet Pepsi would still contain ace K, which he argued was "poorly tested​", executive director Dr Michael Jacobson said diet soda still represented a better choice than full sugar soda, however.

"Reformulated or not, diet sodas probably are still a better choice than full-calorie sodas sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or sugar.  While diet sodas pose small risks, the evidence is strong that regular soda increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, tooth decay and other major health problems."

Coca-Cola said in a statement​ that it has no plans to remove aspartame from Diet Coke, "America’s favorite no-calorie soft drink."

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