Amid cancer studies, makers say Diet Coke is safe

August 14, 2013

Flickr/David Martyn Hunt
Diet Coke

The Coca-Cola Company has come under plenty of fire for its sugary products that are linked to obesity. But these days the company also finds itself defending products designed to make you skinny.

The company came out swinging this week with full page ad in USA Today supporting the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame (which it uses in diet products) and explaining its role in weight loss. According to the Associated Press, the company plans to run more such ads, including one in the Chicago Tribune next week.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of aspartame in food, recent scientific studies by Italy’s Ramazzini Foundation have linked the sweetener to cancer in rats.  The studies have swayed some major consumer health advocates, including Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, to protest its use and even urge the FDA to reexamine its approval. The agency declined.

“Aspartame really shouldn’t be in the food supply,” said Lisa Lefferts, a senior public health scientist at CSPI. “Three different independent studies  found that aspartame causes cancer and these studies are superior to earlier industry sponsored studies because they were larger and used a more sensitive protocol…Those studies have come under attack and criticism by industry and government. But [CSPI] examined those criticisms very carefully and we found them to be largely without merit.”

The Coke-sponsored ads, however, say that "The safety of aspartame is supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years.”

The ad campaign comes in the wake of significant declines in diet soda sales, which have dropped faster than the sales of their regular counterparts for the first time in years, according to John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest.

Although some studies suggest that diet drinks can aid weight loss others indicate that artificial sweeteners may not satisfy the appetite in the same way as sugar and may maintain cravings for sugary tastes.

Coca-Cola provided the following statement: 

“We believe there is a real opportunity to bring people together to learn more about low- and no-calorie sweeteners. Low- and no-calorie sweeteners offer a great way for people to manage their calories while still enjoying the sweet taste of the beverages and products that they love. But, we know that people have questions about aspartame. So, we created this print ad to address their concerns and make it easier for them to get the facts. We are working to connect people to credible third party resources and information to reassure them that these are safe, quality ingredients that people can feel good about.”

Monica Eng is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @monicaeng.

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