Bye-Bye, Aspartame: Diet Pepsi Removes the Vilified Sweetener From Its Recipe

The soda company is ditching the sugar-substitute standby for Splenda.
(Photo: Reuters)
Apr 25, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

As much as soda drinkers might get the occasional stink eye from their health-conscious peers, that’s nothing compared to the abject horror diet-soda consumers potentially face from their friends. To some, sipping a diet cola is the equivalent of drinking poison.

PepsiCo thinks that’s all because of negative perceptions surrounding aspartame, the artificial sweetener used to make Diet Pepsi taste sweet without all of the added calories of sugar or corn syrup.

“Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda,” said Seth Kaufman, a vice president at Pepsi, in a release on Friday. So what’s a soda company to do? PepsiCo is dropping the ingredient for a combination of sucralose—better known by its brand name, Splenda—and acesulfame potassium, according to The Associated Press.

Currently, Coca-Cola has no plans to alter the recipe for Diet Coke, which also contains aspartame. “All of the beverages we offer and ingredients we use are safe,” reads the company’s response.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority have given the green light regarding the use of aspartame. The ingredient has been the subject of hundreds of studies in rats and humans without any definitive results. But possible links between aspartame consumption and blood cancers in men have left consumers wary.

Sales for Diet Pepsi have dropped dramatically in the past two years, with a decline of about 35 percent, while Diet Coke sales have dropped about 15 percent. And while soda sales overall have dropped in the past decade, consumer concerns over unnatural ingredients have caused many to steer clear of the calorie-free options.

Changing the recipe is a big risk for PepsiCo. Coke’s attempt to go natural with Stevia fell flat last year, and anyone who’s switched from adding Equal—an artificial sweetener that contains aspartame—to Splenda in their coffee knows it does indeed have a different taste. Splenda may not have as negative a connotation as aspartame, but it’s still an artificial product at a time when many consumers are looking for more natural products. To top it off, artificial sweeteners have also been linked to weight gain, due to their impact on gut bacteria.

Still, the soda industry forges ahead, with Diet Pepsit cans labeled “aspartame-free” set to hit shelves in August.