Even as Coca-Cola released Q4 (and full-year) 2010 results showing not only strong global growth but actual growth in North American carbonated soda drinks for the third quarter in a row -- bucking the long downward trend in overall N.A. carbonated soft drink (CSD) category sales -- the simultaneous news on the diet soda front delivered a blow to all mainstream soda makers.
That news: Daily diet soda drinkers appear to be at significantly higher risk for strokes and other "vascular events," according to just-released results of government-funded research.
This week also proved to be one of big ups and downs for PepsiCo. After celebrating top-placed ratings/rankings for several of its consumer-created "Crash the Super Bowl" commercials (including fourth and sixth places for spots for its largely male-targeted diet Pepsi Max, as well as #1 and #3 rankings for Doritos spots), the company this morning reported disappointing financials that were widely construed by analysts to at least in part reflect market share loss to arch-rival Coca-Cola.
On a less critical front, the timing of the diet soda research news threatens to perhaps take some of the edge off of PepsiCo's planned unveiling of a sleek new "Diet Pepsi Skinny Can" during a Diet Pepsi party (hosted by high-profile fashion commentator Simon Doonan) being thrown Friday evening as part of New York's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.
The stroke research (called the Northern Manhattan Study, or NOMAS) -- a large, long-term study conducted by Columbia University and Miami's Miller School of Medicine -- was launched in 1993 to track stroke incidences and risk factors in a multi-ethnic urban population.
The headline-making results, released during this week's American Stroke Association international 2011 conference: People who drank diet soda every day had a 61% higher risk of strokes/vascular events than those who reported no soda drinking.
The study results were also far from good news for makers of packaged goods or beverages containing high sodium levels: The research found that stroke risk (independent of having hypertension) increased 16% for every 500 milligram (mg) of sodium consumed per day. Furthermore, only a third of study participants met the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which (even in their just-revised version) recommend a maximum daily sodium intake of 2,300 mg for about half of Americans. In addition, only 12% met the 1,500 mg daily maximum long recommended by the American Heart Association (and now also recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for those with certain risk factors). The average daily sodium intake of study participants was 3,031 mgs.
On the diet soda front (and basically the same on the sodium front), the researchers said they accounted for participants' age, sex, race or ethnicity, smoking status, exercise, alcohol consumption and daily caloric intake -- and that even after also accounting for subjects' metabolic syndromes, peripheral vascular disease and heart disease history, the increased stroke risk for daily diet soda drinkers was 48%. The researchers did not identify what factor(s) associated with diet soda -- either ingredients or biological -- might be responsible for the higher risks found.
The American Beverage Association quickly released a statement from its SVP for science policy, Maureen Storey, who is a physician, asserting that there is no evidence that diet soda "uniquely causes" increased risk of strokes or vascular events. Storey also stressed that the research did not factor in subjects' family stroke histories, and that "the body of scientific evidence" shows that diet soda can be a "useful weight management tool" (a position supported by the American Dietetic Association).
Nevertheless, the results are already getting significant exposure and commentary in both mainstream media and health and other blogs/ sites, not to mention social media.
None of which can be music to the ears of those at either PepsiCo or Coca-Cola. Coke Zero, also positioned in large degree to attract men who want full-flavored taste in a diet soda, has since 2005 become one of the company's most successful product launches ever. (As of mid 2010, Coke Zero was the U.S.'s 12th-largest cola brand, with sales four times higher than those of Pepsi MAX, according to Beverage Digest data.)
What remains to be seen, of course, is how the beverage industry as a whole and the major brands in particular will respond -- or perhaps not respond -- going forward to the bad press for diet soda. And on a related front, whether the publicly acknowledged, already intensive research pushes by both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to come up with a next-gen no- or low-calorie natural sweetener (particularly one that works in carbonated beverage formulations) might perhaps take on even more urgency now.
"Clearly, this diet soda news is getting a lot of attention, and is of great concern for beverage makers," says Laura Ries, partner in the Ries & Ries branding consultancy. "And the consumer confusion factor will be exacerbated because the research doesn't identify the specific cause of this diet soda risk factor -- is it the sweetener, or the carbonation, or some other factor that might even be biological to individuals? It's not a case like cigarettes, where we know the scientific dynamics and there's no doubt that they cause cancer. And with diet soda, there is a possible, quite important benefit, meaning reducing calorie intake -- which is, of course, critical, given that obesity is one of the biggest contributors to Americans' health problems.
"But at the same time," Ries points out, "there has been long-running debate and controversy about the health implications of artificial sweeteners and whether such sweeteners in general -- and in diet sodas in particular -- might actually trigger metabolic or psychological cravings for sweet tastes -- ultimately, perhaps contributing to weight gain rather than helping consumers reduce overall caloric intake. One aspect of the problem for beverage makers in this new study news is, of course, that because of this ongoing debate, consumers may well assume -- perhaps wrongly -- that the sweeteners are the culprit in this reported elevated stroke risk with diet sodas.
"Particularly lacking such answers, it would be very difficult for beverage makers to effectively counter these study findings through messaging campaigns -- and perhaps even more important, we know that in most cases, the more a company or industry responds to or protests in these kinds of situations, the guiltier they seem to appear in consumers' perceptions," Ries adds. "So, bottom line, I would say that getting actively, publicly engaged in this controversy would be the worst thing that beverage makers could do.
"Instead, they should be looking at these results very closely internally and trying to figure out if there's something they can do in terms of their products to address these possible health issues. Obviously, coming up with major natural zero- or low-cal sweetener breakthroughs and new soda products employing these was already on a fast track, and one would assume that this study news will confirm and perhaps heighten these initiatives' priority status."