Amid falling sales, Coke launches campaign to defend sweetener

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By Maggie Fox

Coca-Cola launched the first of a series of ads Wednesday defending its use of the sweetener aspartame, attracting immediate criticism from a consumer group that’s been lobbying to have it banned.

Rumors about health effects have abounded almost since aspartame hit the market in the 1970s, but although studies have linked super-high doses of the sweetener to cancer in rats, there’s little evidence it’s hurting people.

"Time and again, these low- and no-calorie sweeteners have shown to be safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar," the ad reads.

The first ad ran in Atlanta-area editions of USA Today and it was scheduled to run in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Thursday and the Chicago Tribune next week.

Beverage Digest says sales of diet sodas are falling at a faster rate than they are for sugar-sweetened soft drinks. It reports that last year, sales volume for Coke fell 1 percent, but volume fell 3 percent for Diet Coke fell 3 percent. Pepsi sales fell 3.4 percent, while sales of Diet Pepsi fell 6.2 percent.

There’s not only a fear of artificial sweeteners, but a few studies have suggested, but not proven, a link between obesity and sugar substitutes. Some diet experts believe it’s possible eating something sweet, even if it’s calorie-free somehow changes metabolism, or perhaps that artificial sweeteners make the body crave more calories.

Caren Pasquale Seckler, vice president of social commitment at Coca-Cola, said the company will see how consumers respond to the ads before running more.

"This is a beginning and it's a learning process, but we do have plans to do more," she said.

The ads stress that aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, is safe and provides a calorie-free way to sweeten food and drinks.

The American Cancer Society and the Food and Drug Administration agree that the evidence shows aspartame is safe when consumed at normal levels. 

“A typical adult would have to drink about 21 cans of diet soda a day to go over the recommended level,” the Cancer Society says on its website. “One early study suggested that an increased rate of brain tumors in the US during the 1980s might have been related to aspartame use. However, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the increase in brain tumor rates actually began back in the early 1970s, well before aspartame was in use.”

NBC News Health and Diet Editor Madelyn Fernstrom agrees. “While water is the go-to calorie-free hydrater, many people do not choose it. These drinks can be one of several options,” she says.

“Saving 100 calories per day ( about 6 teaspoons of sugar) can prevent nearly 10 pounds of weight gain a year. Cutting portion size, lowering fat intake, and choosing fresh, unprocessed foods, walking 30 minutes daily are also important tools,” Fernstrom advises.

But Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael Jacobson says no one should eat or drink products that contain the sweetener. “Aspartame has been found to cause cancer—leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumors—in laboratory animals, and it shouldn’t be in the food supply,” he said in a statement.

“That said, consumers should know that the greater and more immediate danger to their health is posed not by artificial sweetened products, but by the full-calorie versions of Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar drinks. Rather than posing small risks of cancer, the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars in these drinks cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Everyone would be better off drinking water or seltzer water instead.”

Jacobson called Coke’s ad a “propaganda campaign”.

Aspartame is clearly harmful to people with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder. People with this condition cannot process phenylalanine, an amino acid found in aspartame and other foods. Unless they limit intake of the compound, they can develop brain damage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report