Soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi have both made the move towards making healthier products by removing the artificial sweetener aspartame
from their diet drinks, in favour of a more natural alternative.
Diet Soft Drinks
Diet soft drinks have been popular since the early 80’s, however, these days consumers have gradually been steering away from diet drinks in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.
The main reason consumers have flocked to products like Diet Coke and Pepsi Max is that although they claim to provide all the flavour of a soft drink, it contains little to no calories or sugar.
But just how has this been achieved? It’s all down to a man-made artificial sweetener called aspartame. Aspartame is one of the most common artificial sweeteners on the market and is used in over 6,000 products. It’s also sold under the brands NutraSweet and Equal.
What is Aspartame?
Aspartame is derived from a combination of amino acids; aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It was discovered by accident in 1965 by a chemist who was testing an anti-ulcer drug.
Aspartame is around 200 times sweeter than sugar, so a very small amount is all that is needed to sweeten a product.
Is Aspartame Safe?
There has been controversy surrounding aspartame for years and questions regarding its safety continue to be raised. Many consumer groups claim that aspartame causes a number of health problems, which range from dizziness, headaches and memory loss, to Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and even cancer.
However, despite these claims, there is no evidence that aspartame is harmful in its current recommended doses. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) have all performed comprehensive reviews of the safety of aspartame, and all support the safety of aspartame for use as a sweetener in food.
Studies performed in 1980 by JECFS established that the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of Aspartame was 40mg per kg of body weight, meaning that the average person can safely consume around 3400mg of aspartame daily without any adverse side effects. The amount of aspartame found in one serve of Diet Coke is around 185mg.
Further studies by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) in 2007 did find links between aspartame and cancer in rats. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviewed these findings in 2009 and found that the rats were given levels of aspartame close to the ADI of humans. Based on the evidence available, the EFSA concluded that aspartame did not cause cancer and found no reason to alter the ADI for Aspartame. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) also agreed with this assessment.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did find links between aspartame and pre-term delivery in pregnant women in a study performed in 2010, however, concluded that the current ADI remains safe for the general population.
People with Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder that leaves them unable to digest phenylalanine, a chemical compound of aspartame, should avoid all products containing aspartame as it may cause a build up in their body and could eventually lead to mental impairment and possible brain damage.
Stevia as a Sweetener
Although aspartame has been proven to be safe when the correct ADI levels are adhered to, many breathed a sigh of relief when Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced they were moving towards a natural sweetener; stevia.
What is Stevia?
Stevia is a plant-based sweetener derived from a herb in the Chrysanthemum family. It has reportedly been used as a sweetener for hundreds of years in South America, as well as a treatment for burns, colic and stomach problems. Japan has also been using stevia as a mainstream sweetener since 1970.
Refined Stevia, like it’s counterpart aspartame, has no calories and is approximately 200 - 300 times sweeter than sugar. People who consume stevia-based sweeteners as opposed to sugar have a lower risk of developing diabetes.
Tests on animals have shown that stevia may actually assist in the production of insulin, the hormone that drives blood sugar into cells. This means that stevia may be beneficial to diabetics.
There have also been claims that stevia actually reduces the amount of plaque on the teeth, which may result in fewer cavities, although this has yet to be definitively proven.
There have been some concerns that stevia may cause low blood pressure, however, this not yet been confirmed.
Stevia seems to be quite effective when used as a sweetener for products such as diet soft drinks, however, stevia is not as temperature stable as sugar. This means that it will not caramelise or ferment like sugar does, which may limit its use in certain products such as baked goods.
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose are very cheap to manufacture which is part of the reason why they have been so popular for so long. However, stevia, while natural, is quite a lot more expensive to grow and manufacture than its synthetic counterparts, due to the large quantities required. This means consumers may see an increase in price as artificial sweeteners are phased out. Environmentalists are also calling for stevia to be sustainably grown to prevent the over-harvest and eventual extinction of the herb.
Is Coke Life Better for You?
Coke Life contains around 35 percent less sugar than regular Coke, however, it does contain more sugar than Diet Coke or Coke Zero. Despite this, Coca-Cola insists that Coke Life is designed as a low-calorie alternative to regular Coke and will not replace Diet Coke or Coke Zero.
The Company’s Marketing Director, Lisa Winn, stated: "Coca-Cola Life was a win for consumers who want the full-sugar taste without the artificial sweeteners found in Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero."
However, health professionals are not convinced, saying that the reduction in sugar made little difference in terms of overall health impacts.
Jane Martin, of the Obesity Policy Coalition, stated, "there is hardly any difference between the original Coke and Coke Life. They are still high sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages. This product is no different in that respect."