The rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi is as deep and longstanding as UGA vs. Georgia Tech, but there is one thing on which the two beverage giants agree: aspartame is not the enemy.
But consumer sentiment against the popular artificial sweetener is on the rise as sales for diet sodas — of which aspartame is a chief ingredient — are fizzling.
Pepsi, feeling the pressure, responded earlier this month by launching aspartame-free Diet Pepsi, a new formula using less controversial artificial sweeteners — sucralose and Ace K.
Atlanta-based Coke, for its part, says it’s sticking with aspartame in Diet Coke, the nation’s No. 3 soft drink.
Reaction to Pepsi’s move has been mixed. Taste tests done by The Street and CNBC gave the new formulation a thumbs up, with some testers unable to differentiate between old and new and saying the product was more”refreshing” than the original, tastier and didn’t have the chemical smell of diet sodas.
But online detractors, noted in a Business Insider story, offered not-so-good reviews like this from JLaufe: “Anybody else secretly thanking Diet Pepsi for removing aspartame? I can finally kick my addiction simply because it tastes so terrible.”
The big beverage companies are trying to come to grips with changing consumer views on sugary drinks and their artificial sweetener counterparts and getting it wrong could cost billions of dollars.
Soda sales, which peaked in the 1990s, are struggling as consumers — convinced by health advocates that the nation’s obesity is linked to the consumption of sugary drinks — have switched to waters, teas and energy drinks. A Gallup poll released Aug. 3 found that six in 10 American adults said they are trying to steer clear of sodas, including diet varieties.
That in turn is leading to some scary numbers for big cola. In 2014, volume for Diet Pepsi was down 5.2 percent and 6.6 percent for Diet Coke.
Pepsi’s move is an acknowledgement that the trend is gaining momentum and the company wants to be on the right side history, said Joseph Agnese, an analyst for S&P Capital IQ. “The trends are already there,” he said. “They are just trying to stem the flow.”
Seth Kaufman, Pepsi Tradmark senior vice president, said the New York-based company conducted extensive testing on the updated product for two years. Ditching aspartame had been the No. 1 request from Diet Pepsi fans, he said.
The new product has been added to shelves as the older Diet Pepsi is purchased. The company will back it up with new advertising, taste tests and through its marketing deals with the NFL.
“The scale of this is so big,” Kaufman said. “So any change you make you have to take very seriously.”
That doesn’t mean the beverage industry has stopped advocating for aspartame.
“Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients in the marketplace today, has been used for more than three decades and is backed by more than 200 scientific studies supporting its safety,” said Haley Stevens, president of the Calorie Control Council, a trade association representing sweetener manufacturers as well as food and beverage manufacturers using their products.
Stevens said aspartame has been deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority, among others.
But Michael Jacobson, executive director of the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said independent lab tests have shown aspartame causes cancer in animals. He said the impact of sucralose and Ace-K is unknown because there has not been enough research, but some preliminary findings indicate that they too could cause cancer in animals.
Coke said it’s standing its ground on aspartame because “Americans have fallen in love with Diet Coke, the No. 1 zero-calorie sparkling beverage, because they enjoy its taste.” But the company also has covered its bases with Diet Coke with Splenda, which uses the same ingredients found in aspartame-free Diet Pepsi.
Still, experts said Coke will keep a watchful eye on reactions to Pepsi’s switch by both consumers and Diet Coke fans.
Coke last fall launched “Get A Taste,” a Diet Coke marketing campaign designed to associate Diet Coke with making mundane moments more playful and bright. The company plans to kick it up during this fall with social media and in-store marketing.
Agnese said time is of the essence for Coke. He said the brand is a good position now, but must make sure it is nimble should Diet Pepsi take off.
“Coke doesn’t want to miss out and be late to the game if Pepsi is successful,” he said.
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