Aspartame-free variant won't keep the fizz in Diet Pepsi

Doubts about artificial sweeteners could derail soda brand before it has a chance to regain its former sparkle.

Diet Pepsi digital ad
Diet Pepsi digital ad

PepsiCo will likely see an initial sales bump as its new aspartame-free Diet Pepsi hits stores this week, but it will fail to keep the increasingly health-conscious and fickle consumer happy in the long run.

PepsiCo created the revamped beverage – now sweetened with a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium – as diet soda sales continue to fizzle out in the US from consumers questioning the safety of artificial sweeteners, notably aspartame.

Last year, PepsiCo’s Diet Pepsi and Diet Mountain Dew brands fell 5.2% and 3%, respectively, in terms of volume, while competitor Coke Zero dropped 2%.

Seth Kaufman, an SVP at PepsiCo, told media outlets this week that the inclusion of aspartame in its diet products is "the No. 1 thing our customers have been calling about," acting as a catalyst for updating the beverage.

Haley Stevens, Ph.D., president of the Calorie Control Council, told PRWeek aspartame is one of the most-researched ingredients in food supply.

"Low-calorie sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium have been reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration and regulatory authorities abroad to ensure safety," she said.

Regardless of the council’s statements, the battle against artificial sweeteners has waged for decades and the debate over its safety will carry on for years to come.

In fact, some people are already reportedly questioning the safety of artificial sweetener ace-K (short for acesulfame-potassium).

"Consumers should avoid that sweetener as well," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It is poorly tested, but the tests done by the manufacturer in the 1970s suggest ace-K, too, might pose a cancer risk."

As health concerns such as these continue to pop up, consumers will begin avoiding the new Diet Pepsi product – one that just hit the market and people are unfamiliar with, unlike the aspartame-laden beverage that’s been on shelves since 1983.

The fact that PepsiCo is considering customers’ concerns is admirable and smart, since today’s consumers like to know companies are listening to them and enlist similar values. But this isn’t the first time Pepsi – or its competitors – have tried offering healthier artificially sweetened beverages without success.

In 2012, PepsiCo attempted to boost Diet Pepsi sales by reformulating its ingredients, switching to a blend of aspartame and ace-K.

The company also launched Pepsi True late last year, which contains zero-calorie, plant-based sweetener stevia.

It is too soon to tell how it is doing from a sales perspective as PepsiCo did not include information about Pepsi True in its Q1 or Q2 earnings this year, but the response has been underwhelming. And some media reports criticized the beverage’s bitter aftertaste from the stevia plant.

Including its NFL sponsorship in the new Diet Pepsi digital banner ads this week was a good way for PepsiCo to double the attention from consumers and media. People can’t help but notice the football in the ad – a reminder the season is coming up – and they surely can’t miss the large writing on the top that says, "Crisp, refreshing. Now aspartame free."

And PepsiCo’s Diet Pepsi announcement did not lack traditional or social media attention this week, earning coverage from outlets such as NBC, CNN, USA Today, and Bloomberg and trending on Twitter Monday.

The idea of altering its flagship zero-calorie beverage to attract new and former Diet Pepsi drinkers is a rational move. But PepsiCo has to be ready to effectively respond to impending criticism about its revamped sweetening ingredients.

Only if all these consumer worries are put at ease – which is doubtful, if not impossible, with the rate at which alarm spreads on social media – can the company retain long-term fans for the new Diet Pepsi.

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