Responding to Diet Coke’s Sales Slide, Coke Reassures Safety of Aspartame

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Coca-Cola continues to adjust its defensive crouch with the publication of a new ad meant to shore up consumer confidence in the artificial sweeteners in its diet drinks.

Regular Coke sales were down by 2 percent in the first half, continuing a long slide. But it turns out that it’s not just sugary soft drinks Americans are growing uncomfortable about; it’s diet drinks as well. Though switching to Diet Coke is a typical gambit by those who want fewer calories but don’t want to give up Coca-Cola altogether, sales of the company’s diet sodas actually fell 6 percent by volume during the first half, three times the rate of decline for its regular drinks.

Coke’s research determined that consumer hesitance over aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke, is largely to blame even though the chemical sweetener has been around for decades. Still, Nutritionists and consumer advocates are raising doubts about the long-term effects of aspartame.[more]

And there are other factors. Stevia, the natural sweetener that many in the beverage industry thought would evolve into a mainstream substitute for aspartame in Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, hasn’t been embraced by consumers enough to take that role. And PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has raised serious doubts about whether stevia ever will be.

Meanwhile, a growing concern of many Americans isn’t simply how many calories they’re consuming in a beverage but whether they can avoid unnecessary or chemical-sounding ingredients in favor of a “clean-label” approach to everything they drink. In an era that is seeing all-natural beverages such as coconut water and juice filled with chia seeds enjoy rising appeal, an aspartame-based soft drink begins to lose it.

In response, Coke ran a print ad on Wednesday in the Atlanta region of USA Today and will run it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as well as the Chicago Tribune. The ad says its diet drinks are safe. “The safety of aspartame is supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years,” the ad says.

Coke began this broad offensive against enemies of its soft drinks in January with a TV ad that pushed back at critics who blamed Coke consumption for fueling obesity rates—a campaign that is still ongoing with its latest “Grandpa” advert that encourages imbibers to live more like “grandpa did.”

As it battles the twin forces of falling sales of its soft drinks and public skepticism, the ads probably won’t be the last word from Coke, either.

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