Ads for Aspartame

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Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we have often discussed controversies related to certain sweeteners, as well as sugar. Sugar, particularly when used in soft drinks, is widely believed to be a major contributing factor to the epidemic of obesity in the United States, while certain other sweeteners are suspected of playing a role in obesity — under the theory that they make people hungry — as well as a host of other health conditions.

Since they rely so heavily on all types of sweeteners, beverage manufacturers have been particularly hurt by the growing suspicion of some sweeteners. According to a USA Today article published last week, last year the sales volume of Coca Cola fell by 1%, while sales of Diet Coke fell 3%. These numbers may not seem large, but for an industry accustomed to expanding its market and attracting new customers — and maintaining a large base of loyal product users — any drop in sales is cause for alarm.

So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Coca Cola has now responded by creating an ad to defend its use of the sweetener aspartame. As outlined in the USA Today article, a print ad headlined “Quality Products You Can Always Feel Good About” will run this week in that newspaper’s Atlanta-area edition as well as in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Chicago Tribune. Found in Diet Coke and many other diet sodas, aspartame has been on the US market since 1981 and is one of the most thoroughly studied food additives (as Amy Campbell noted in her blog post on aspartame last month).

However, most studies have been relatively short in duration, so while they may tell you that aspartame is safe over a few months or years, it is difficult to know what, if any, long-term effects it has. And the wide range of its alleged health effects — neurological diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers, as well as headaches and digestive upset — make it difficult for some people to give aspartame the benefit of the doubt (see David Spero’s 2008 blog post on aspartame here).

But will Coke’s strategy pay off? It is possible that one reason for the bigger drop-off seen in sales of diet soda is that its target customer is more health-conscious than the typical buyer of regular soda. These people will be more inclined to reject a product for health-related reasons, presumably as they have already done with regular, sugar-sweetened soda. For these people, even hearing about a health controversy surrounding a product can act as a springboard for more research and, possibly, a decision not to use that product. By calling attention to the controversy surrounding aspartame, Coke may inadvertently lead certain people to doubt the safety of its products.

Do you consume aspartame-sweetened products? If not, do you favor a rival artificial or zero-calorie sweetener, or do you avoid these sweeteners altogether? What factors do you consider when choosing a sweetener or the products that contain it? Do you think you would be more reassured or worried after reading a newspaper ad touting the safety of a controversial food ingredient? Leave a comment below!

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