The World Health Organization (WHO) has reaffirmed its recommended intake of aspartame, a sweetener commonly used in diet sodas. However, the WHO’s classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen could potentially deter diet soda drinkers and lead to the development of new beverage formulas. While soda consumption has decreased in recent years as consumers opt for healthier alternatives, diet sodas have seen a surge in popularity. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have been successful in their efforts to offer zero-sugar versions of their flagship sodas, which contain aspartame.
# WHO’s Possible Link between Aspartame and Liver Cancer
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO agency, has identified a possible link between aspartame and hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer. WHO officials stated that further research is needed to determine the potential connection. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagrees with IARC’s conclusion and asserts that its own scientists do not have safety concerns about aspartame.
# Acceptable Daily Intake of Aspartame
The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, a separate body linked to the WHO and the Union Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, has reaffirmed its prior recommendations regarding the acceptable daily intake of aspartame. For most adults, this means consuming less than nine to 14 cans of diet soda per day.
# Consumer Concerns and Potential Impact on Sales
While the possible link between aspartame and cancer may not dissuade consumers who consume smaller amounts of diet soda, the announcement could harm sales temporarily. TD Cowen data shows that diet sodas are more popular among higher-income consumers, who may be concerned by the WHO’s report. The potential risk for soda makers lies in the level of attention the announcement receives. If enough consumers see the headlines, sales volumes of low-calorie sodas may be negatively affected. However, analysts believe that soda companies are agile enough to respond and maintain momentum for their brands.
# Recommendations for Manufacturers and the Response from PepsiCo and Coca-Cola
Dr. Francesco Branca, head of the WHO’s nutrition and food safety division, advises manufacturers who use aspartame to consider producing their products without the sweetener. However, PepsiCo’s Chief Financial Officer, Hugh Johnston, stated that the company has no plans to change its use of aspartame, noting that it is not included in much of their portfolio. PepsiCo had previously removed aspartame from Diet Pepsi in 2015 but brought it back a year later due to customer backlash. However, in 2020, the company once again eliminated aspartame from Diet Pepsi while still using it in Pepsi Zero Sugar. On the other hand, Coca-Cola faces more risk in terms of potential sales loss due to aspartame concerns. CFRA analysts suggest that the company may consider using alternative sweeteners such as stevia in the future for its Diet Coke and Coke Zero products.
# Potential Impact on Diet Soda Sales
While there may be some shift in consumer preferences towards other sugar-free offerings, analysts do not anticipate a significant impact on diet soda sales. Consumers have previously encountered similar situations where certain food or beverage products have been labeled as carcinogens. The classification of red meat as a probable carcinogen by IARC in 2018 serves as an example. Therefore, makers of diet sodas are not overly concerned about lost sales. The American Beverage Association, which represents major soda companies, considers the WHO announcement to be further confirmation of aspartame’s safety and reassures consumers that it is a suitable choice for those seeking to reduce sugar and calorie intake.
# Aspartame’s Usage and Use as a Sugar Substitute
In addition to diet sodas, aspartame is commonly found in various food products, including breakfast cereals, chewing gum, and ice cream. Its widespread use as a sugar substitute is attributed to its sweetness, which is 200 times stronger than sugar, allowing for lower concentrations to be used.