Coke to defend safety of aspartame in new ad (VIDEO)

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Coke under fire for sweetners

NEW YORK (AP) — Coca-Cola plans to run its first ad defending the safety of artificial sweeteners on Wednesday, a move that comes as the company looks to stem declining sales of diet soda.

The print ad is set to run in USA Today in the Atlanta area, followed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Thursday and the Chicago Tribune next week. It says that diet drinks can help people manage their weight and stresses the scientific evidence showing the safety of aspartame, which is more commonly known under the NutraSweet brand name.

The ad represents the next phase of a campaign Coca-Cola Co. launched in January to push back at critics who blame its sugary drinks for fueling obesity rates. The first wave of ads outlined the company’s commitment to fighting obesity and pointed to the many diet options it offers. Now Coca-Cola is trying to reassure people that those lower-calorie drinks aren’t harmful.

“Coke is trying to get out front and proactively defend these diet sweeteners,” said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, which tracks the industry.

The fading popularity of soft drinks in the U.S. has been a long-running trend, given worries the sugary fizz makes people fat. But more recently, people have been pulling back on diet soda as well, signaling that concerns about soda go beyond weight gain.

In fact, sales of diet sodas are falling at a faster rate than regular sodas in the U.S., according to Beverage Digest. Last year, for example, sales volume for Coke fell 1 percent, while Diet Coke fell 3 percent. Pepsi fell 3.4 percent, while Diet Pepsi fell 6.2 percent.

The declines come even though the Food and Drug Administration says aspartame may be safely used in foods as a sweetener, and the ingredient can be found in a wide array of other type of drinks and foods. The American Cancer Society also notes most studies using people have found aspartame is not linked to an increased risk of cancer, including the largest study on the topic.

Still, some feel there may be effects from consuming large quantities of artificial sweeteners over a lifetime that haven’t been detected. Artificial ingredients in general are also falling out of favor as people increasingly move toward organic and natural ingredients.

“Even if (aspartame is) 100 percent safe to use, it’s still problematic from a nutrition standpoint,” said Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian based in Las Vegas who is critical of the food industry’s marketing practices.

In a nod to the various concerns over artificial sweeteners, Coca-Cola and rival PepsiCo Inc. are also working to come up with a drink that uses natural, low-calorie sweeteners.

Notably, Coca-Cola’s ad softpedals the fact that it is about artificial sweeteners, a sign that the company wants to be cautious about a sensitive topic. The ad features a picture of two women under the heading “Quality products you can always feel good about,” with several paragraphs of text underneath. “Time and again, these low- and no-calorie sweeteners have shown to be safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar,” it states.

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