PepsiCo announced that it will stop using aspartame in Diet Pepsi in the U.S. as of this August.
The company will replace aspartame with sucralose, best known under the brand name Splenda, in regular Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi.
Diet soda sales have been in a decade-long decline in this country, and the declines have worsened in the past two years. Last year, sales by volume dropped 6.6% for Diet Coke, 5.2% for Diet Pepsi, 3% for Diet Mountain Dew and 2% for Coke Zero, according to Beverage Digest.
Although the Food and Drug Administration and other scientific and regulatory bodies have declared aspartame safe (or safe for all but people with phenylketonuria, per the FDA), consumer activists have continued to assert that aspartame can cause or contribute to a wide range of maladies and diseases. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has advised against consuming aspartame, citing studies that found that the sweetener may cause cancer in animals.
Research has shown that Americans have very negative perceptions of the artificial sweetener. "Aspartame is the No. 1 reason consumers are dropping diet soda," Seth Kaufman, SVP of Pepsi and Flavors Portfolio, PepsiCo North America Beverages, told the Associated Press.
In a video announcing the change, Kaufman said that PepsiCo had done extensive research and testing with U.S. diet cola drinkers, and it was clear that they want "great-tasting cola without aspartame."
Diet Pepsi obviously hopes that the move will give it a leg up on Diet Coke and other leading diet brands, all of which still use aspartame. The packaging for the reformulated Diet Pepsi will employ a "now aspartame free" call-out.
At the same time, PepsiCo, citing "decades of studies" showing aspartame is safe and the company's continued confidence in that safety, said that it is not taking aspartame out of Diet Mountain Dew and its other diet brands in the U.S., or, in non-U.S. markets, out of Diet Pepsi or any other diet brand.
Zevia, an independent, "disruptor" diet soda brand that still has small share but has seen significant growth since its 2007 launch (sales of $60-million-plus as of 2013), has found a fan base by sweetening with stevia and two other from-nature ingredients: monk fruit and erythritol.
But among the big soda brands, stevia has so far been applied only in reduced-calorie formulas that also include sugar. Coca-Cola rolled out its reduced-calorie Coca-Cola Life in the U.S. last November, and PepsiCo is now selling its reduced-calorie Pepsi True in three U.S. markets.
In addition to sucralose, Diet Pepsi will still contain the artificial sweetener acesulfame-potassium (Ace K). CSPI maintains that Ace K hasn't been adequately tested, "but the tests done by the manufacturer in the 1970s suggested that Ace-K, too, might pose a cancer risk." Actually, CSPI has also "cautioned" consumers about sucralose, saying that, too, has to date been inadequately tested.
The nonprofit nutrition activist organization did, however, praise PepsiCo for removing aspartame from Diet Pepsi, adding that it hopes that this will encourage other makers to do the same.
Negative perceptions about aspartame also led General Mills to remove the sweetener from its Yoplait Light as of last summer. And Whole Foods has put both aspartame and Ace-K on its lengthy list of ingredients that basically disqualify food and beverages from being sold in its stores.