Why Pepsi's Move to Splenda Won't Make a Difference
April 29, 2015
After years of declining sales, PepsoCo is dropping the safe but widely maligned artifical sweetener aspartame from its flagship Diet Pepsi in hopes of boosting their numbers. By August, Diet Pepsi will be sporting an "aspartame-free" label and a new formulation sweetened by a combination of sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda) and acesulfame potassium (also called ace-k, which makes it sound like street slang for ketamine).
While there's much that could be said about the junk science behind the aspartame backlash that in part led to this move, I'm not here today to debate the science; there are other writers out there assembling that evidence. Instead, I want to consider a different question: Will this move make any long-term difference whatsoever for Diet Pepsi's sales numbers?
And make no mistake, this is all about sales. Diet Pepsi is selling less than it used to, and PepsiCo is pointing the finger at consumers who complain about aspartame as a major factor in that decline. In fact, it's been a rough time for soda sales in general as the industry has suffered ten straight years of sales decline, and diet sodas appear to be hit especially hard. People simply aren't drinking soda like they used to.
PepsiCo isn't the first one to attempt to gain market share by playing into the public's aspartame fears. Last year, General Mills removed aspartame from its Yoplait Light yogurt products, citing similar public concerns. Their new packaging loudly proclaims "NOW no aspartame!" And what did Yoplait replace aspartame with? Sucralose and ace-k, the same sweeteners that will be filling the aspartame gap in Diet Pepsi.
Another blow to aspartame's market share came in September of last year, when NutraSweet -- the brand name that is practically synonymous with aspartame -- announced that they were getting out of the aspartame business due to reduced profits and consumer demand for other sweeteners (including Twinsweet, which is made of both aspartame and, again, acesulfame-k).
Here's another interesting fact: this isn't Pepsi's first foray into either sucralose or ace-k. Do you remember Pepsi ONE? The diet drink from the last decade was originally formulated with aspartame and ace-k, until the Atkins Diet trend launched sucralose to the top of the sales chart in 2005 and Pepsi reformulated ONE into a mix of ... wait for it ... sucralose and ace-k.
Full disclosure: I used to drink a lot of Pepsi ONE. I mean, like, a lot. And while I don't generally drink diet sodas nowadays, or any sodas for that matter, I may buy the new Diet Pepsi when it comes out just to see how much it tastes like Pepsi ONE.
And that may be the best Pepsi can hope for here: the curiosity bump. They might even pick up a few new regular drinkers (those who disliked the aspartame aftertaste, for example). But in the long-term the same skittish consumers who are scared of aspartame are going to get scared about sucralose and acesulfame-k, because this trend against aspartame is not about the specific sweetener -- it's about the naturalistic fallacy that drives a categorical mistrust of all artificial sweeteners because they are artificial.
Aspartame was a number one target of criticism specifically because it was the most popular and widely used. How long, now, before those same naturalistic and alt-med voices ratchet up the concern over sucralose to such a degree that it will be the number one complaint consumers have about Diet Pepsi? These sweeteners are already in the crosshairs. Mercola.com has several articles on the dangers of sucralose, and Natural News was warning about the dangers of acesulfame-k back in 2013.
Diet Pepsi may not even get the curiosity bump. While General Mills had high hopes for their move away from aspartame, Yoplait Light sales are still declining even as the brand's overall sales are on the rise. The Diet Pepsi reformulation is a bigger news item, but there's no guarantee it will translate into sales.
The hard truth may be the one that PepsiCo simply doesn't want to face: that the heyday of sodas has passed. Carbonated soft drinks were a phenomenon of the twentieth century. We're well into the twenty-first now, and as tastes change and public awareness of health and nutrition increase, sodas appear to be falling out of favor. Ultimately, it may not be Diet Pepsi that PepsiCo needs to reformulate to survive; they may need to reformulate their entire approach to making a profit.
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