Ads for Aspartame

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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  • Joe

    My biggest problem with non-nutritive sweeteners is that bottlers use far too much, leaving the products unbearably sweet, much more so than the regular version. Therefore I don’t drink either, except as a very rare treat of a small regular Coke.

  • Bob

    I have been a diabetic for over 25 years and I drink a lot of sodas. Most of them are sweetened with aspartame, though recently I have picked the ones sweetened with Splenda. No worry about the dangers, I’m 70 now and more healthy than most 70 year old people who do not have diabetes.

    I do think Diet Coke sales my be off because of the use of aspartame because there is so much information out there that makes it sound worse than plutonium.

  • Ml

    What about milk? I understand that back in March the FDA was petitioned to allow the milk industry to add a sugar substitute rather than sugar and not put it on the label. I am very concerned as I am allergic to sugar substitutes and a diabetic.

  • zenaxe

    The exhaustive testing that Nutrasweet has undergone and my own side effect free daily use of it since the 1980s (going on 30 years… ) is sufficient proof of its efficacy, safety, and usefulness for diabetes management.

    The people who go on about this particular product come off like conspiracy nut jobs. IMHO. There are much better causes to champion.

  • Ferne

    Too many of these sweeteners have a laxative effect. Aspartame and sucralose are two of them. I never drink sodas and don’t like them. Just because one person can drink it without problems doesn’t guarantee it’s safe for everyone.

  • joan

    Artificial sweeteners” I use artificial sweeteners when I forget to bring along aspartame which I have used since it was available [a long time ago] without any side effects developing. None of the sweeteners seem to bother me but I do not use them very often.

    If diet drinks bother a person’s system then stop drinking them!

    I make my own lemon aid or drink pure water.
    I feel better leaving all diet drinks strictly alone.