Die-Hard Diet Soda Fans Can Once Again Enjoy Aspartame’s ‘Classic’ Flavor

A year after reformulating its zero-calorie soda to use sucralose, PepsiCo is bringing back the original artificial sweetener.
(Photo: Yonolatengo/Flickr)
Jun 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Aspartame is back! It’s one of the oddest exclamations to come out of the food and beverage industry in a while, not only for its open embrace of an artificial sweetener that has been dogged by concerns about its cancer risk but also for putting a brave face on what amounts to a rather embarrassing about-face for Pepsi. Yes, a little over a year after the soda giant announced with much fanfare that it was reformulating Diet Pepsi to get rid of aspartame, the company is bringing the controversial sweetener back.

In April 2015, PepsiCo Vice President Seth Kaufman said, “Aspartame is the No. 1 reason consumers are dropping diet soda.” At the time, the company maintained that it was bowing to overwhelming customer demand by switching from aspartame to sucralose, known better by the brand name Splenda.

Yet sales of Diet Pepsi continued to nose-dive, dropping 10.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to The Associated Press—nearly double the 5.7 percent drop for competitor Diet Coke, which continues to be made with aspartame.

So Pepsi has decided to have it both ways, kind of like Coke did back in the 1980s when it infamously tried out New Coke—only to be forced to bring back the original recipe after one of the biggest product flops of all time.

(Illustration: Élishia Sharie)

Diet Pepsi made with sucralose will continue to be sold in silver cans marked “aspartame-free,” while its aspartame-laced sister soda will come in light-blue cans euphemistically labeled “classic sweetener blend.” That kind of seems like hawking MSG as a “classic” flavor enhancer.

The return of aspartame may mollify die-hard Diet Pepsi fans who just couldn’t stomach the new taste, but it does nothing to quell concerns about the possible health effects of a long-term diet soda habit. As with so many suspect food additives, aspartame has been the focus of a tug-of-war between industry and federal regulators—who say there’s plenty of science to support their assertions that the artificial sweetener is safe—and public health advocates such as the folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who maintain that a lot of that science is funded by industry and that independent studies have linked aspartame to certain types of cancer in mice.

Beyond that, there’s the larger question of whether regular consumption of diet soda, no matter what brand, has a counterintuitive effect. That is, does drinking diet soda cause people to gain rather than lose weight? A growing body of scientific evidence has supported the phenomenon, although researchers have generally been at a loss to explain it. While some scientists have argued that consuming zero-calorie beverages has the psychological effect of encouraging people to eat more—e.g., “I’m having a diet soda, so I’ll get a larger order of fries”—others have posited a more physiological explanation. One possibility is that artificial sweeteners may interfere with our brain chemistry to cause us to crave more sugar or that they might alter our gut bacteria to make us more susceptible to glucose intolerance.

All in all, it’s enough to give an ominous ring to aspartame’s celebrated return.