Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) classified aspartame, an artificial sweetener commonly used in diet sodas, sugarless gum, and other food products, as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
At the same time, JECFA made no change to its acceptable daily intake estimate, and the WHO explained in a statement that an adult weighing around 150 pounds would “need to consume more than 9–14 cans per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake, assuming no other intake from other food sources.”
“The assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies,” WHO Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety Dr. Francesco Branca said.
The news arguably has the biggest potential impact on the beverage industry, and industry trade groups and its biggest players were quick to respond.
The American Beverage Association called the statement that there was no need to alter the acceptable daily intake a “”strong conclusion,” adding, "With more than 40 years of science and this definitive conclusion from the WHO, consumers can move forward with confidence that aspartame is a safe choice, especially for people looking to reduce sugar and calories in their diets."
There’s clearly a concerted effort to assuage any consumer fears around aspartame, with the American Beverage Association promoting a “Safety of Aspartame” website that pops up as a sponsored search result.
The two biggest beverage companies were also quick to position the news to minimize any potential negative impact on brand perception, mostly acting unfazed.
The Coca-Cola Company echoed the American Beverage Association’s statement about findings that “approve aspartame’s safety.” The company went on to make clear that it is “not planning to change our recipes containing this ingredient,” and will “continue to focus” on its mission of providing a range of beverage options to consumers.
The issue was a minor enough concern for Coca-Cola that it apparently went unaddressed in the company’s recent Q2 financial report and subsequent earnings call.
“We don't have any plans to change the product portfolio relative to where we are right now with aspartame," PepsiCo Chief FInancial Officer Hugh Johnston told Reuters around the time of WHO’s announcement. “"By far the weight of the scientific evidence suggests that aspartame is safe as an ingredient, and obviously has the benefit of being zero calorie.”
Johnston told Reuters that aspartame was only used in “a few products” in its portfolio, and was not “a huge part” of its offerings, while leaving open the possibility they could revisit a change at some point in the future.
“Aspartame is one sweetener,” he said. “There are lots of different sweeteners we use and candidly it's relatively easy for us to shift sweeteners if it became something that was important to do,”
Pepsi had actually tried to move away from aspartame in the past. The company changed its formula for Deet Pepsi to remove aspartame back in 2015, but reverted back to aspartame the following year.
For upstart competitors offering alternative low or no-sugar beverage options to consumers, meanwhile, the news presents opportunity.
“When it comes to sweeteners, one of the powerful trends we see in beverages is alternative sweeteners derived from natural sources, which many emerging brands have ridden to gain shelf space and gain momentum with consumers,’ Dan Buckstaff, CMO for data insights and technology company SPINS, told Marketing Daily.
“If I were managing the advertising for these alternative brands that have cleaner [ingredient] profiles, I would be hitting the turbo button on advertising with the aspartame news. That's a big narrative that's out there, and there’s a lot of consumers that you can … maybe convert.”