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Weighing in on the debate over aspartame: Coca-Cola defends sweetener in ads

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Coke launches new ads defending aspartame

On Wednesday, Coca-Cola launched a campaign defending its use of aspartame in the first of a series of ads, which are drawing criticism from a consumer group lobbying to have the sweetener banned.

While the health benefits and risks of aspartame have been a subject of controversy ever since its debut in the 1970s, and research has suggested that high amounts of it may cause cancer in rats, evidence remains lacking that the sweetener poses any danger when consumed by humans.

Even the ads by Coke deliver a reassuring message: "Time and again, these low- and no-calorie sweeteners have shown to be safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar."

According to Beverage Digest, diet soda sales have dropped – even more so than their sugary soda counterpart. Last year alone, Coke sales dropped 1 percent, while Diet Coke dropped 3 percent. Similarly, sales for Pepsi dropped 3.4 percent, while sales of Diet Pepsi declined by 6.2 percent.

So why the decline in both sugar- and non-sugar sweetened soft drinks? Some say it has to do with recent news reports regarding the dangers of too much sugar in our diets, as well as the potential dangers of artificial sweeteners. From being the link between sugar and obesity, to how no-calorie sweeteners can also make you fat by triggering hunger, it’s possible that for at least some consumers, it’s best to just play it safe by avoiding soft drinks altogether.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s vice president of social commitment, Caren Pasquale Seckler, said that the company is waiting to see how consumers respond to its new ad campaign before launching more.

"This is a beginning, and it's a learning process, but we do have plans to do more," she said.

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Aspartame is sold under the brand, NutraSweet, and Coke’s ads promote the sweetener as safe and that it provides a calorie-free way to sweeten food and drinks.

Both the American Cancer Society and the Food and Drug Administration also support Coke’s message, saying that aspartame is safe when consumed in moderation.

On its website, the American Cancer Society states that a “typical adult would have to drink about 21 cans of diet soda a day to go over the recommended level”, but the National Cancer Institute (NCI) points out that “the increase in brain tumor rates actually began back in the early 1970s, well before aspartame was in use”.

There are others who are also convinced that aspartame is bad for you.

For example, Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called Coke’s ad a “propaganda campaign”.

“Aspartame has been found to cause cancer – leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumors – in laboratory animals, and it shouldn’t be in the food supply,” Jacobson said in a statement.

“That said, consumers should know that the greater and more immediate danger to their health is posed not by artificial sweetened products, but by the full-calorie versions of Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar drinks,” he added. “Rather than posing small risks of cancer, the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars in these drinks cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Everyone would be better off drinking water or seltzer water instead.”

SOURCES: 1. Coca-Cola Company, "Quality Products You Can Always Feel Good About: Learn About Coke's Ingredients," by Caren Pasquale Seckler (August 14, 2013). 2. The American Cancer Society, "What is Aspartame?" (February 7, 2011). 3. Aspartame.org, "Separating Fact From Fiction about Aspartame."