Diet Pepsi Drops Aspartame -- Is It Enough to Boost Sales?

Reformulation Comes Amid Consumers' Health Concerns

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PepsiCo is removing aspartame from Diet Pepsi in an attempt to reverse sagging diet soda fortunes. The brand will replace the much-maligned sweetener with sucralose, which will be combined with acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K.

"Diet cola drinkers in the U.S. told us they wanted aspartame-free Diet Pepsi and we're delivering," Seth Kaufman, senior VP of Pepsi and the flavors portfolio for PepsiCo North America Beverages, said in a statement. "We recognize that consumer demand is evolving and we're confident that cola lovers will enjoy the crisp, refreshing taste of this new product."

The formula change was first reported by Beverage Digest. Diet Pepsi last changed its formula in 2013 when it blended Ace-K with aspartame, which had been in use since 1983, according to the trade publication.

The reformulation will be made to Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi in the U.S. New Diet Pepsi cans will include language declaring the soda as "now aspartame free." The product will begin hitting stores in August and the change will likely be accompanied with new marketing. Diet Pepsi's 2013 formula change was touted with a major ad campaign called "Love Every Sip" starring Sofia Vergara.

All other major soda diet brands contain aspartame, including Diet Coke. "There are currently no plans to change the sweetener for Diet Coke, America's favorite no-calorie soft drink," said Coca-Cola in a statement. "All of the beverages we offer and ingredients we use are safe."

But aspartame's negative health perception has contributed to falling sales for diet brands across the board. Diet Coke volumes dropped 6.6% last year, while Diet Pepsi fell 5.2%, according to Beverage Digest.

"The No. 1 thing we see from consumers is a complaint about aspartame," Al Carey, CEO for PepsiCo Americas Beverages, said earlier this year at a financial analyst meeting. "I'd say that diet business stays down for a while. We have some ideas about how we might address it," he said. But it's a "definite drag on the business."

As Beverage Digest pointed out, aspartame has been declared safe in several studies, but it has drawn increasing criticism from consumers. "Complaints of various health issues have circulated since aspartame first appeared on the market in the 1980s," according to the American Cancer Society. "But for most people, no health problems have clearly been linked to aspartame use."

Still, brands seem more willing to respond to consumer sentiment -- not studies -- in the current era of intense social media scrutiny.

Against this backdrop, Kraft Foods Group earlier this week announced that starting in January it would remove artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from its original Macaroni & Cheese brand. The company said it would replace synthetic colors with "those derived from natural sources like paprika, annatto and turmeric."

As recently as 2013, Kraft had defended the use of yellow dyes by pointing to a Food and Drug Administration finding that the dyes were safe.

But in the statement this week, Triona Schmelter, Kraft's VP-marketing for meals, said that consumers "told us they want to feel good about the foods they eat and serve their families, including everything from improved nutrition to simpler ingredients."

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