A freshly re-branded Diet Pepsi, containing the phrase “aspartame free” on its silver label has entered the market nationwide, not without the usual fanfare. PepsiCo got rid of the often controversial sweetener aspartame in response to popular demand, replacing it with sucralose, also known by the brand name Splenda and acesulfame potassium or ace-K, both of which are sweeteners often deemed as safer substitutes.
This change by PepsiCo was caused by a widespread public concern about the potential side effects of consuming aspartame. Diet sodas are known to contain multiple questionable compounds, but aspartame seems to have caught on the public eye the most and has become the main ingredient people are concerned about.
Several studies done on animals have found a link between aspartame and risk of developing cancer, and a highly controversial study from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2012 was looking for a potential link in humans, even though the scientists from the study had to admit that the link was weak.
Another study done by the American Cancer Society found no link at all. Other artificial sweeteners such as ace-K and sucralose (both are found in the reformulated Diet Pepsi) might also pose a cancer risk, and there are other questions about the safety of artificial colors, as well as the caramel coloring which is usually found in most sodas (even in some ginger ales), plus some emulsifiers.
So, before you make any conclusions about everything we’ve talked so far, it’s a fact that the risk of developing cancer from food additives is pretty low. This means that diet sodas are still a better choice than their cousin beverages filled with sugar. It’s a well-known fact that sugar drinks are one of the biggest causes of obesity and have also been linked to diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, as well as tooth decay. Even though diet sodas are hardly healthy, they are somewhat of an improvement over regular sodas.
Based on the findings from numerous studies about the main components in diet sodas, here’s how they stack up from least to most harmful.
The least harmful
The new Diet Pepsi doesn’t have aspartame in it, which may push it to the top of our list. However, it still has acesulfame potassium (ace-K) in it, which has been poorly tested, even though two studies have suggested that is might pose a cancer risk, as well as sucralose (Splenda),a compound which the CSPI is cautiously studying because the authors of one study link it to the development of leukemia.
The truth is that aspartame has been undergoing through cancer testing compared to the other artificial sweeteners, so even though at first it might seem like the worst compound from a risk perspective, it is quite possible that the others are just as bad but there’s no sufficient evidence to support that claim.
Diet Pepsi also has caramel color in it, which is not the same caramel that you can make at home by melting sugar in a spoon or a saucepan. This caramel color which is used in soda drinks is made with the mixing of ammonia and sulfites under a high temperature and high pressure. In the process, compounds such as the cancer-causing substance known as 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI, can form. The 4-MI levels are much higher in the Diet Pepsi compared to the ones in the Diet Coke, according to a study done by Consumer Reports, even though the most recent testing showed some improvements.
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is a branch of the World Health Organization, concluded that 4-methylimidazole (4-MI) is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” and the State of California now lists it officially as a carcinogen. Consumer Reports’ study found that some soda drinks sold in California have much lower 4-MI levels compared to the same soda brands sold in other states.
Diet Coke with Splenda also has no aspartame in it and none of the accompanying risks, however, the sweet taste comes from sucralose, which is now also on the caution list of the CSPI, as well as ace-K, which is on the avoid list.
Aspartame is the most common sweetener choice for most diet sodas’ producers, so regular consumers should think twice about what they’re drinking. The aspartame content, in order from least to most per 8oz bottle is: Sprite Zero (50 mg), Coke Zero (58 mg), Pepsi Max (77 mg), Diet Pepsi and Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi (111 mg and 118 mg, respectively), Diet Dr. Pepper (123 mg), Diet Coke and Caffeine-Free Coke (125 mg).
One should keep in mind that all of the brands above, except for Sprite Zero, also have caramel color in them, thus the potential to have 4-MI as well. And unless these brands have the label “caffeine-free”, the caffeine in them can pose a real problem for small children, pregnant women and people who are sensitive to caffeine.
The most harmful
Diet Mountain Dew may well be one of the most harmful diet sodas because it contains the greatest number of potentially dangerous compounds. Not only does it have ace-K, aspartame, and sucralose, it also contains more caffeine than other diet sodas, and it gets its color from yellow #5, which in some children has been shown to cause hyperactivity.
Additionally, Diet Mountain Dew also has the emulsifier brominated vegetable oil (BVO), which has been proven to leave residues in body fat, as well as the fat in the liver, brain, and other vital organs. The FDS declared BVO “not generally recognized as safe” in 1970, but allowed its use on an interim basis until additional research was made, and it hasn’t changed that status ever since. Coca-Cole and PepsiCo have pledged to remove BVO from any of their drink which contains it, but they never said when that may happen.
In the end, the re-formulation of Diet Pepsi and getting rid of the aspartame might be one last effort of the diet soda industry to revive its decreasing sales. An increasing number of people are choosing healthier foods and drinks, including low and no-calorie drinks made without some potentially harmful ingredients.
Here’s a handful of examples: DrinkMaple Pure Maple Water (it has no added sugar and half the natural sugar in coconut water, Steaz (sweetened with stevia and erythritol, a sugar alcohol which CSPI deems safe), Reed’s Ginger Brews (the “lite” version is sweetened with stevia leaf extract and honey), Zevia Cola(made with stevia extract, erythritol and monk fruit extract) and Hot Lips Pear Soda(it has no added sugar).
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