Sweetening the deal
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Sweetening the deal

Of course too much sugar is bad for you. But the presence of sugar, aspartame and Stevia in sodas is creating a new kind of cola war

brunch Updated: Jul 11, 2015 19:59 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
sugar,colas,fizzy drink

I dealt some months ago with the sugar-is-poison campaign that is pushed by many so-called nutritionists. My view (and I speak as somebody who normally does not eat dessert or mithai) is that much of the scary stuff is overblown.

Our bodies need sugar. It is a natural substance and human beings have been eating it in one form or the other for centuries.

Yes, too much sugar is not good for you. And yes, there is a tendency, especially when it comes to packaged food, to load products with sugar. It will turn up in vast quantities in foods where you don’t expect to find it (baked beans for instance) and in all kinds of sauces (even tomato and chilli sauce).

The golden rule is to look closely at any product that brags about its low fat content. Usually, the manufacturers add lots of sugar to make up for the loss of the fat.

And, on balance, I think I’m probably happier with a little fat (oil, butter, etc) in places where I expect to find it than I am with massive quantities of sugar slipped surreptitiously into my food.

These days, most educated people know that the single biggest source of sugar in modern diets is the fizzy drink. Assume you could take all the sugar out of Coke and Pepsi.


Assume now that you could add sugar to taste (like we do with tea, coffee or even nimbu pani). You would be horrified by the quantities of sugar you would need to add to get the real Coke or Pepsi taste.

I wrote last year about a BBC Newsnight broadcast in which the presenter, Jeremy Paxman, demonstrated that to get to the factory-specified level of sugar in one of those paper cups of large Coke they sell at cinemas, you would have to put in 27 (yes, 27!) sachets of sugar. Paxman did his demonstration in front of Coke’s UK head who offered no protest.

But both Coke and Pepsi do have a defence. They say that if you want to avoid the sugar content in their products you can simply drink the diet versions. This is fair enough – almost everyone I know who likes colas drinks Diet Pepsi or Coke Zero.

But it presents some problems. First of all, should we be giving these diet drinks to children who are most at risk from sugary drinks? (You will recall that old saying: "sugary colas rot children’s teeth") The beverage companies hum and haw.

I’ve never seen a child in an ad for a diet drink and, as far as I know, no cola company recommends the diet versions of their drink for children.

But why shouldn’t they? If, after all, the big objection to Coke, Pepsi and the rest, is that the sugar is bad for kids, then surely the manufacturers should be delighted to recommend the sugar-free versions?

Which brings us to the second problem: what do they use in place of sugar?

Ah yes, this is where they all start getting a little shifty.

In India (as far as I know), both Coke and Pepsi use aspartame. This is a perfectly acceptable sweetener which many of us use anyway (as Equal, for instance) and is approved for use by the FDA, the US body which tests food and is known for its high standards.

Aspartame is also approved by the European Food Safety Authority, which has found it perfectly safe. And you’ll find aspartame on sale all over Europe under such brand names as Canderel.

So all is well!https://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2015/7/1207_brunch_17.jpg Er, not quite. In late April, Pepsi announced that it was removing aspartame from Diet Pepsi

in the US.

Hello! Wasn’t this supposed to be completely safe? Well, yes, it is safe, Pepsi responded, but you know… Or, to quote Seth Kaufman, a vice-president at Pepsi, "Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda".

So, from what I can gather (and some of my information comes from The Times in London, not from some supermarket tabloid!), Pepsi’s position is that while aspartame is completely safe, they are not going to

use it in their home market. In markets such as India, however, aspartame will continue to be used.

Does this make any sense? If it is safe, then why are they removing it from US Diet Pepsi? And if it isn’t safe, then why are we being made to drink it?

The problem, Pepsi says, is one of perception. While aspartame is totally safe, Americans don’t necessarily believe that it is safe (yes, I know, this is getting a little convoluted) and consumers are ‘dropping’

Diet Pepsi from their shopping baskets.

So, Pepsi is giving up on aspartame in the US for commercial reasons. But Indians (and others) can keep drinking aspartame-sweetened Diet Pepsi till we too ‘drop’ it because we believe (wrongly, of course)

that it isn’t safe. At that stage, perhaps Pepsi will make a similar commercial decision here.

Yes, I know. It’s crazy.

But the truth is that all of us have heard scare stories about nearly every sweetener. For instance, Saccharin, which was the most common sweetener in the Indian market (it was the one which had a bitter aftertaste if you used too much) fell out of favour after reports that it raised the likelihood of bladder cancer in rats.

Cyclamates, hailed as a miracle sweetener, fell from grace over other health concerns.

And aspartame gets a particularly bad rap. As somebody who drinks a fair amount of Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi and Coke Zero, I am forever being told by well-wishers that my brain will rot, my nerve functions will be impaired and that my memory will vanish.

Legend has it that some airlines discourage pilots from consuming aspartame before flights. And enough Americans have doubts about the side-effects of aspartame in Pepsi to take the sweetener out of its diet version.

Even in India, I’ve heard people say that they’ve switched to Coke Zero from Diet Coke because "it does not have aspartame". This, by the way, is nonsense. Both use the same sweetener but Coke Zero has a lower caffeine content and (in my view) tastes better.

The funny thing about aspartame is that even people who will choose an alternative sweetener in the shops (say Splenda over Equal) have no choice but to consume large quantities of aspartame because of its industrial uses – it can even turn up in toothpaste.

And while sweeteners derived from sugar (such as Splenda which is sucralose, or sorbitol or xylitol) do not get the same bad rap as aspartame because they are perceived as ‘natural’, they attract their own share of controversies.


Some scientists argue that they go directly to the colon where they may have negative effects on the natural bacteria. And when they are digested in the colon, they could cause gas and have a laxative effect.

So if the sweetener options are so complicated, what is one to do? Well, the beverage industry says that there is a safer alternative.

For many years, The Coca-Cola Company was accused of trying to fast-track health approvals for Stevia, a sweetener (or more properly, a commonly used generic for a family of sweeteners) derived from plants and shrubs.

So far at least, nobody has provided any evidence that Stevia causes gas, cancer, or God alone knows what else.

In Japan, one of the world’s most developed markets, The Coca-Cola Company does not use aspartame in Diet Coke. It uses Stevia instead and perhaps because consumers are aware of this, Diet Coke has an enviable market share in Japan.

So why, I hear you ask, doesn’t Coke just get rid of aspartame with all its attendant controversies and just use Stevia in Diet Coke and Coke Zero anyway?

Good question.

But the answers are complicated. There is, first of all, the matter of cost. Aspartame is made in a lab. It costs next to nothing to produce. Stevia comes from plants. They have to be cultivated. This is a long and more expensive process. As of now, there is some doubt about whether the world production of Stevia is enough to entirely replace aspartame.

And then there’s the business of regulatory approvals. I’ve spoken to people who grow the plants from which Stevia is extracted in India and they say it is far easier to just export the entire production. It is a nightmare getting approvals for anything from Indian regulators.

So what does that mean for the artificial sweetener market?

Status quo, I think. Nobody is going to try anything novel or original.

And Pepsi will go blue in the face explaining why it is okay to make Indians drink Diet Pepsi sweetened with aspartame while customers in their home market will get another sweetener.

Fine with me, though. I’m not giving up on my Diet Pepsi or Coke Zero any time soon.

From HT Brunch, July 12
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First Published: Jul 10, 2015 17:31 IST