Canadian Diet Pepsi still has aspartame: Is that better or worse than the new U.S. Diet Pepsi?

Daily Brew
Canadian Diet Pepsi still has aspartame: Is that better or worse than the new U.S. Diet Pepsi?

Diet Pepsi imbibers in the U.S. might notice a change to their favoured beverage this week with the soft drink behemoth rolling out its aspartame-free version. Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi will also go aspartame-free.

But north of the border, aspartame, which is by now a household named, continues to be the brand’s sweetener of choice, says Sandy Lyver, spokesperson for PepsiCo Beverages Canada

“Consumers in Canada love Diet Pepsi just as it is today – it’s the number one diet cola in Canada,” Lyver told I. “Pepsi uses a variety of approved sweetener options to create great-tasting colas, including aspartame, which remains an important sweetener in some Pepsi beverages around the world, including Diet Pepsi in Canada.”

PepsiCo initially announced it was swapping aspartame for a combination of sucralose, which is better known as Splenda, and ace-k (Acesulfame Potassium) back in April. 

“PepsiCo aims to provide a wide variety of refreshing beverage choices to meet evolving consumer demand, individual taste preferences, market needs and relevant local tastes,” she added.

But don’t worry Canada; the U.S. isn’t necessarily getting a “healthier” diet cola. The move is more likely a marketing position, given that the new sweetening agents don’t carry nearly as much baggage as aspartame does.

A series of studies over the past few years have put aspartame in the public cross-hairs.

One lingering notion that has cut into sales of products including aspartame over the years is that there’s a link between cancer and consumption of aspartame. This has been rebuked by several studies.

Other reports – including one done at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in 2011 and one published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 – have drawn links between artificial sweetener and belly fat, which is obviously a bit of a hurdle for soft drink companies given that cutting calories is kind of the reason people drink diet pop.

The bad press has given soft drink companies a bit of a headache. According to a report by global research and market insight firm Mintel, health concerns surrounding sugar and artificial ingredients in carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) are impacting sales with 52 per cent of Canadians checking the ingredients before buying or drinking.

“I think aspartame has a negative perception among consumers,” says Leslie Beck, a registered dietician, author and television personality. “But I don’t necessarily think that putting, say for example, sucralose or acesulfame potassium into products is any better than aspartame.”

Although research has gone both ways, it has opened consumers up to the idea that artificial sweeteners are not just inert chemicals.

“They seem to have biological effects in the body that could possibly be harmful to health or could promote weight gain or could disrupt blood sugar balance in the body,” says Beck. “I don’t think we can continue thinking that artificial sweeteners are a magic bullet to weight loss or to saving calories.”

Yet both Canada and the U.S. have a lengthy list of approved artificial sweeteners.

In the U.S., the Federal Drug Administration has approved saccharin, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame and sucralose. Health Canada has approved acesulfame-potassium, polydextrose, sucralose, thaumatin and sugar alcohols (polyols) like sorbitol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol.

“Approval has been the result of extensive safety testing, establishing maximum use levels in foods and review of these data by major regulatory agencies around the world, including the WHO, the European Food Safety Authority, as well as Health Canada and FDA,” says Dr. Bernadene Magnuson, a scientific consultant specializing in food toxicology and ingredient safety and regulation. “As far as I am aware, there is no country that has denied approval of aspartame.”

She points out that “dose” is the key word that often gets overlooked with the negativity surrounding aspartame.

“Because it only takes 1/200th of the amount of sugar for aspartame to provide the same sweetness, even the highest consumers of low calorie products eat less than a gram of aspartame a day,” she says. “Aspartame provides sweetness without contributing calories or affecting blood sugar and aspartame-sweetened products help consumers enjoy sweetness without the extra calories.”

But no matter what side of the debate you are on, the core message is the same. It’s not so much about the sweeteners as it is about consumption.

“I think if you occasionally drink diet soft drinks that’s not going to be harmful, but people who consume them on a regular basis – one to three a day – really need to think about cutting back,” says Beck.

But are Canadians getting the message?

Joel Gregoire, food and beverage senior analyst at Mintel, says that while soft drink consumption has been challenged in recent years, nearly nine in 10 Canadians state that they drank at least one carbonated soft drink (CSD) in the past month. Further to that, 43 per cent of Canadians state that they’ve turned to a diet cola like Diet Coke or Pepsi or Coke Zero at least once over the same period.

“When asked about their perception of CSDs in relation or other drinks such as juice, water, etc… 62 per cent of consumers cite ‘artificial’ as being top of mind,” he says adding that “it makes sense for manufacturers to take a more ‘natural’ approach to sweetening their beverages.”

While Canadians don’t seem to be as adamant as their American counterparts to see alternative sweeteners in their sodas, Mintel’s research found the 18 to 34 year-old age group in Canada is more likely to see soft drinks as an artificial treat, suggesting a changing sentiment may be on the horizon.

“As such, CSD manufacturers can look to enhance their all-natural credentials by evolving their portfolio in the Canadian market to reflect Canadians’ – and particularly young Canadians’ – concerns around having less artificial options,” he says.