“If consumers really stop buying Diet Coke because of this report, if sales start to suffer, it might be time to go to Plan B,” Nelson said.
Coca-Cola referred questions to the American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm for the industry. “Aspartame is safe,” Kevin Keane, the association’s interim president, said in a statement.
PepsiCo did not respond to questions for comment, but chief financial officer Hugh Johnston told Bloomberg Markets he did not expect a big consumer reaction.
“I do believe that, in fact, this is not going to be a significant issue with consumers based on just the preponderance of evidence that suggests aspartame is safe,” Johnston said.
The assessment of the WHO agency adds to consumer confusion around aspartame, but it is also the latest in recent research focusing on the potential risks and questioning the true benefits of artificial sweeteners. Just a few weeks ago, the WHO advised against using artificial sweeteners for weight control, saying a review of studies did not show long-term benefit in reducing body fat in children or adults. The review also suggested that the sweeteners were tied to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
This year, researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a study that found sucralose, a chemical formed after digesting another sweetener, breaks up DNA and may contribute to health problems.
For years, food and beverage companies and regulators have typically denounced research that raises questions about artificial sweeteners, broadly arguing that the studies were flawed or inconclusive or that the health risks were minuscule.
“A substantial body of scientific evidence shows that low- and no-calorie sweeteners provide effective and safe options to reduce sugar and calorie consumption,” said Robert Rankin, the president of the Calorie Control Council, the lobbying association for manufacturers and suppliers of nearly two dozen alternative sweeteners.
Indeed, most food and beverage companies that use aspartame are reluctant to switch, partly because aspartame is less expensive than other alternatives and is 200 times as sweet as sugar, meaning a little goes a very long way.
“One of the benefits of aspartame is that it’s been made for so long that manufacturers have really refined the costs and processing of it so well, and they get a superior product,” said Glenn Roy, an adjunct organic chemistry professor at Vassar College, who spent more than three decades working at food companies, including NutraSweet, General Foods and PepsiCo.
On top of that, the FDA approved aspartame in 1974, giving companies decades of data and information on what the product can and cannot do in products.
For instance, it can enhance and extend certain fruit flavours, such as cherry and orange, making it a preferred sweetener for beverages and chewing gum. But when heated, aspartame loses its sweetness, making it less desirable for baked or cooked products.
Food and beverage companies are releasing new no- or low-sugar products in response to consumer demand, but many are being made with either newer sweeteners or a blend of sweeteners. Each new product undergoes a litany of sensory and flavour tests before it is released.
But for products that have been around for decades, such as diet sodas, scientists say loyal customers are accustomed to a specific taste, and they could be turned off by changes in ingredients.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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