Less than a year after making the responsible decision to remove aspartame from its products, Pepsi has backtracked, announcing that it will be reintroducing the artificial sweetener into two of its beverages. With links to cancer in lab mice, not to mention an association with side effects such as headaches, depression, and memory loss, other unintended side effects, and even the possibility of harm to the brain, the decision to reintroduce aspartame is both troubling and surprising.
Why Would Pepsi Bring Back Aspartame?
Among the reasons that Pepsi’s decision to bring back aspartame is so shocking is the fact that the company originally pulled the artificial sweetener due to public outcry over safety concerns. In fact, Pepsi’s Senior Vice President at the time, Seth Kaufman, went as far as to say it was the “number one thing” that customers had been calling the company about. On the heels of this customer feedback, and the growing body of evidence surrounding the potential danger of aspartame, Pepsi choose to remove the ingredient, and widely publicized and marketed their decision as a move to support better consumer health. Now, not even a year later, the company has decided to abandon that decision, presumably in response to a lack of financial growth after they made the change.
What Products Contain Aspartame?
While Diet Pepsi will continue to be sweetened without the use of aspartame, Pepsi will begin selling a new Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend this fall, which will include aspartame. In addition, the artificial sweetener also will be used in Pepsi Zero, which is being reintroduced in the place of Pepsi MAX to U.S. consumers. The company is presenting the decision as a way in which to offer a greater variety of options to meet different needs and taste preferences, but when legitimate health concerns come alongside that decision, it is difficult to overlook or condone.
However, Pepsi is not the only company or product that uses aspartame. For starters, it’s worth pointing out that Coca Cola uses the artificial sweetener widely; in fact, the only Coca Cola product that does not use it is a specific type of Diet Coke, which is specifically labeled as containing Splenda instead. Moreover, soft drinks are not the only products that sometimes use aspartame; the artificial sweetener is often present in gum, candy, yogurt, desserts, condiments, and some types of meal replacements, among other foods. Essentially any food that is processed in order to be sweeter in taste than it would naturally be, may contain aspartame. The best way to check for the presence of aspartame is to simply looking at the list of ingredients on product labels.
What to Avoid?
Our understanding of the side effects of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, continues to develop as new research explores the complicated ways in which they may cause harm. However, given the growing body of evidence to suggest they may present hazardous health risks, there is plenty of cause to play it safe and avoid them altogether. In addition to the more direct potential side effects, a growing belief that artificial sweeteners desensitize our palates to sweetness, which can ultimately result in weight gain, provides yet another reason for caution.
With all that in mind, the short answer is to avoid all artificial sweeteners, and instead choose natural sweeteners in instances when you wish to sweeten your food. This option will not only avoid the unnecessary risk of using artificial sweeteners, but may just introduce you to some surprising new and enjoyable flavors. Finally, it’s worth noting that soft drinks are generally best consumed in moderation–if not rarely–as a general rule of thumb. These products are typically high in sugar or artificial sweeteners, as well as calories, and are arguably among the primary contributors to the obesity epidemic in our country.
Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.