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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Comments

  1. I occassionally fancy a cold lemonade on a hot day, or used as a top up to make a beer shandy or cider top. From way back I had noticed a strange taste to some lemonades and sought the ingredient. As you rightly state, there seems little chance of buying anything fizzy that is not contaminated with sweeteners.I read a damning report in the Ecologist years ago, about the health risks of Aspartame and it’s cousins.

  2. I agree with Tim. I used to buy R Whites non- diet lemonade until I noticed in 2006 that it contained artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. So I stopped and have not bought any since. I try to find lemonade with natural ingredients such as sugar and real lemon juice but they are hard to come by. Now with Jamie Oliver’s campaign for the sugar levy, they’ll be even harder! I will just have to stick to water.

  3. Coca Cola, Pepsi and 7up seem to be pretty much the only branded drinks left that don’t have sweeteners in their NON diet versions. Ridiculous.

  4. I’ve recently been suffering from headaches that I noticed came about shortly after drinking Schweppes normal lemonade. I came across this article trying to research what may cause the pain, there doesn’t appear to be any other complaints on the web but I wonder if it’s related to the aforementioned artificial sweeteners…?

    1. Makes sense to me. Different people react to different ingredients. I think I’ve heard of people reacting badly to sweeteners.

      Artificial sweeteners tend to make me sick to my stomach, but some people enjoy the flavor.

  5. I get a vile headache after consuming aspartame & there are few soft drinks that don’t contain it. However–Sainsburys own (UK) don’t contain it, so I buy theirs. When I go out I buy coffee, tea or drink tap water–just to be safe.

  6. Just discovered today that Lidl supermarket soft drinks do not contain artificial sweeteners. Hurray, finally i can drink lemonades again as i hate the taste of sweeteners lingering on my tongue.

  7. I have drank schweppes diet lemonaade for years because i liked the taste,i noticed that now they have called it slimline lemonade and the taste of lemonade has disappeared so it just tastes like sweet water. so from now on i will not be buying any more of schweppes so called lemonade

  8. I lived in the UK as a child. I’m back in the states, but miss a lot of the treats I enjoyed when I was younger. On a trip to Washington state, I was overjoyed to find 2 British Specialty shops, only to find that both my favorite sodas (Lemon Fanta and Lilt) contained artificial sweeteners! Not only these, but also the crisps! Walkers Prawn Cocktail and the spicy Monster Munch variety contained artificial sweeteners! I didn’t bother with the sodas (I hate the flavor of artificial sweeteners), but bought both varieties of crisps. The Monster Munch had a bit of an unpleasant flavor, but the slices masked a good deal of it. The prawn cocktail Walkers, though, were awful. Sweet for no reason, and the characteristic disgusting flavor of sugar substitutes. Happily, the sweets I found not only contained sugar, but many or all did not even use artificial colors and flavors. I don’t understand how England can be so good about the contents of its sweet and so terrible about the soft drinks and crisps.

  9. Have been drinking Schweppes diet lemonade for years but recently have been feeling ill after pains in chest Etc have they changed the recipe drinking coke diet no problem.

  10. It’s big brother gone mad, we are being forced to drink these low/no sugar drinks by removing our choice, false sweeteners make me sick, there were 2 Fanta flavours in cans, they were removed sometime this year from the shelves, San pellagrino doesn’t contain fake sugar, we can decide wether or not we want to smoke and damage ourselves why can’t we decide wether we want to drink sugar or not, the manufacturers should supply drinks with sugar in for those of us who are willing to pay the extra ‘sugar tax’

  11. I completely agree with Ann, why is it now so hard to find beverages with honest sugar!? Aspartame and acesulfame make my bones ache. It’s the bane of my life in the shops trying to find cordial/squash that only contain sugar and, as it seems artificial sweeteners are near on impossible to avoid in one way or another I can’t help but feel as if we’re being deliberately poisoned!

  12. Just had to go back to the shops to get some San pellagrino and a decent brand of Indian tonic water as the ones we got in for Christmas had aspartame and sucralose….not only do I dislike the taste I don’t like it’s side effects and the way they are forcing it upon us…it’s all very well Jamie Oliver telling us we are getting fatter and we need to reduce sugar but the drink makers are replacing it with a chemical that is far worse than sugar…and for the record, I don’t have a weight problem…they’ve created this issue as a way to introduce the sugar tax…

  13. I don’t drink much soda but I like a cold shandy in the summer. I too noticed about a month ago that regular lemonade now contains sweeteners. I was devastated and upon reading more labels found that nearly all of them do now.

    For several years I ate lots of low fat, low sugar diet foods thinking I was being healthy but as the years went by I started getting all kinds of ailments, diarrhoea, eczema, palpitations, dizziness, migraines. It took me about a year of research to discover that artificial sweeteners can cause all these symptoms and many more so I stopped consuming them. 1 year later I felt better, 2 years later I feel almost cured and then I noticed the lemonade and recently foods that used to be sugar foods now also contain sweeteners.

    I mostly eat unprocessed foods anyway now and cook from scratch but anything I buy in a tin, packet or box, I always read the ingredients now. The stuff is everywhere. As well as the drinks other people have mentioned, Saintsbury’s do a cloudy lemonade that has no sweeteners ( regular) I use this for my shandy now but will still keep an eye on that label. I don’t want that sweetener crap in my system ever again.

    Great article, more people should be aware of the stuff they’re sneaking into our foods.

  14. This madness with the war on sugar.
    We are now all exposed to these dreadful additives. I myself only cook fresh foods
    but it seem impossible to buy cold drinks.
    I cannot tolerate these additives but they are creeping in at an alarming rate. Why.

  15. To me, the use of artificial sweeteners in non-diet drinks seems to be almost as British as threatening to write a letter of complaint when angry.

    Even here in Ireland, we’re not plagued with artificial sweeteners in non-diet Fanta — which is why when I order Fanta in Northern Ireland, or on a ferry between UK and Ireland, I always ask if it’s British or Irish Fanta (and if it’s British Fanta, I opt for something else).

  16. Aspartame swells my joints it’s pure evil. I get so frustrated that so many drinks have it in. Sainsbury’s however do not use it in any of their own brand drinks yay

    1. Thank you Belinda, always good to know what different shops are using.

      Warm Regards
      Melissa

  17. I too can’t stand the taste of artificial sweeteners, or the headaches that come with them.
    I would much rather choose to drink a drink with sugar, in moderation, than put artificial rubbish in my body. The amount of parents I have spoken to, who think it’s better to give diet drinks to their children is amazing. I can’t believe their naivety. I won’t have them in the house. My teenage son likes Lucozade, which he has in moderation. That too now has artificial sweeteners. He noticed the strange taste straight away, we don’t buy that anymore. Creating a sugar tax doesn’t work either, people either spend the extra for the sugar or buy the diet stuff which in my opinion is worse. More parents need educating, for what it’s worth.

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