Adam Smith

Science & communications officer, ANH-Intl

The infamous artificial sweetener aspartame is definitely, absolutely, incontrovertibly safe, or so the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) continues to tell us. It’s also cheaper to produce than sugar. Is that why it’s making the jump from diet soft drinks to the non-diet, ‘full fat’ versions – and frequently not alone?

The evidence in pictures

Although I’m not at all keen on them personally, I know plenty of people who regularly take soft drinks and even some soft-drink ‘addicts’. I often idly pick up their bottles to examine what dastardly ingredients might lurk within in the latest updated formulations. Recently, I spotted something that sent my eyebrows rocketing skyward: the inclusion of artificial sweeteners like aspartame or acesulfame K in sugar-loaded, non-diet drinks! Many of us have been conditioned to avoid diet drinks because of our aversion or sensitivity to sweeteners. But now we have to be much more careful to check food and drink labels in the non-diet sector as well. One quick trip to a local UK supermarket later, cameraphone in hand, was enough to gather evidence of this seemingly strange phenomenon.

This supermarket-brand lime cordial contains lots of glucose–fructose syrup, AKA high-fructose corn syrup – a gift from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – along with acesulfame K.

Apple Tango proudly proclaims it doesn’t contain “any of those poncy ingredients like ginseng or elderflower”, but tops up its sugar content (5.25 g per 250 mL) with both acesulfame K and aspartame. Give us the ginseng and elderflower, a whack less sugar and no artificial sweeteners every time! And in case you’re wondering, it’s the same story for Cherry Tango, although the Orange version prefers the controversial sweetener saccharin to acesulfame K.

Not to be outdone, Tango’s competitor, Fanta, weighs in with both acesulfame K and aspartame. And a whopping 17.3 g of sugar per 250 mL.

Lilt, however, deems it necessary to cram in no less than three artificial sweeteners in its non-diet incarnation: acesulfame K, aspartame and sodium saccharin. Sugar content? 12 g per 250 mL.

Work this one out: the diet version, Lilt Zero, contains only two sweeteners, one less than the non-diet version!

R White’s Lemonade contains the same three sweeteners as Lilt.

While Schweppes lemonade manages with a mere two sugar substitutes, along with 11 g of sugar per 250 mL.

Even Schweppes Indian tonic water contains saccharin.

Fanta, Lilt, R White’s and Schweppes are all owned by one company: Coca-Cola. So, while ‘full-fat’ Coke itself doesn’t contain any artificial sweeteners – at least so far – many of its parent company’s other brands contain several.

UK bears the brunt

We asked our friend and colleague Corinne Enders of Wissenschaft & Natürliche Gesundheit (Science & Natural Health), who also translates ANH-Intl articles into German, to investigate the situation in Germany.

Fanta contains no artificial sweeteners at all.

Neither does Schweppes tonic water.

Punica, a brand similar to the UK’s Tango, contains sodium cyclamate (Natriumcyclamat) and saccharin (Saccharin-Natrium) in its tropical (pictured), cherry and fruity red versions.

From this limited survey, it would seem that UK consumers are confronted with a far greater array of artificial sweeteners in soft drinks than their German counterparts.

A sweet way to save money

There are two obvious reasons why artificial sweeteners may be creeping into non-diet soft drinks. One is cost. In general, it’s far cheaper to manufacture or buy artificial sweeteners than it is to extract natural sugar from beet or cane crops (Figure 1). However, although the world sugar price hit a record high of around $0.34/lb in 2011, it has since dropped back to $0.16 cents/lb (figures correct as of Tuesday 5th August 2014). So, although sugar prices are a long way from their peak, soft drink manufacturers can still make an easy killing by going down the artificial sweetener route.

According to a 2012 report from the International Sugar Organization (ISO): “There is evidence of some direct substitution of HIS [high-intensity sweeteners] for sugar, particularly through blending of caloric sweeteners and HIS in non-diet products...the advent of even more potent HIS...is compounding incentives for food/beverage manufactures [sic] to substitute sugar (and HFCS) with HIS in non-diet products.” Clearly, this strategy is not about to reverse any time soon, a trend that the report foresees will cause increased competition for sugar in the medium to long term.

Figure 1. Comparison of world sugar and sweetener prices, expressed as % sugar equivalent prices. Reb A: rebaudioside A; HFCS: high-fructose corn syrup. Taken from: Alternative Sweeteners in a Higher Sugar Price Environment. International Sugar Organization, 2012.

Feeding the monster

Secondly, it’s highly likely that the soft drinks industry is responding to a widespread and ongoing change in preferences toward ever-sweeter tastes, along with some recognition of the public’s desire to reduce calories from sugar. Sugar, especially fructose, is in a bewildering range of foods these days and carries a lengthy list of health problems in its wake. Even more disconcerting is the apparent desire of the food and drink giants to continue to tickle our palates and brains with sweetness. Recent published science shows that sugary foods and drinks, including alcohol, can create addiction through an effect on the nucleus accumbens in our forebrain. How better to create a generation of addicts but to surround people with sweetened foods, even if the calorie count might sometimes appear a little lower?

Oh, and because these sweeteners are determined as safe by the likes of EFSA and the FDA, let’s ignore their potential health consequences!

Hobson’s choice

The 2012 ISO report informs us that “A blend of sweeteners tends to impart a more rounded aftertaste with reduced shortcomings of individual sweeteners. This is referred to as qualitative synergy.” Welcome to a bizarre world where soft drink fans can easily avoid sugar and its known health dangers, but are confronted with human-made sweeteners and corporate concepts like ‘qualitative synergy’ at every turn. We await the inevitable bleed-through of artificial sweeteners into other food sectors as the media backlash against sugar gathers pace.

Choose life!

There is a bright side to all this, of course. Corporations appear to be locked into a short-sighted pattern of greed that they risk forcing consumers into a stark choice: either eat and drink hyper-sweet – sorry, ‘qualitatively synergistic’ – and profoundly unhealthy foods stuffed full of artificial chemicals, or make the switch from processed foods entirely. Assuming enough people become awake to the dangers, it’s a strategy that could well backfire on the corporations in the long run, to the benefit of human health worldwide. Remember: we, the citizens, hold the power. Big Food will stop making products for which there is no demand. Please forward this widely to your contacts, especially those responsible for children.

Post-script

I sent an email to the press offices of both Coca-Cola UK, owners of Fanta, Lilt, R White’s and Schweppes, and Britvic UK, owners of Tango, to ask for their point of view on why artificial sweeteners are now found in their non-diet products. As yet, I’ve heard nothing – but we’ll keep you posted should any replies be forthcoming.

Call to action

  • How simple does this get? Cut out soft drinks from your diet entirely, both ‘full fat’ and diet versions! If you’re drinking plenty of either, start by replacing one or two servings/cans per day with an equivalent volume or more of purified or spring water. Then taper down to zero from there, perhaps by cutting out one extra serving per week
  • And while you’re at it…why not cut out processed foods and replace them with fresh, locally grown foodstuffs that are organic where possible?

 

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