Editor's Plate: PepsiCo's About-face on Aspartame Shows the Risk of Trying to Figure out Consumers

Still, the year-old sucralose-ace-K experiment was worth a try.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

To paraphrase Chicago department store magnate Marshal Field: Give the lady what she wants … but only if you’re sure you know what that is. And only if she’s sure she knows what she wants.

PepsiCo surely couldn’t be faulted last summer for doing what it thought was the right thing: replacing the aspartame in its Diet Pepsi with sucralose and acesulfame potassium (ace-K). Also to the company’s credit, it didn’t shout the change from the rooftops, but the new bottles of soda clearly called out the formulation change.

About that time, critics of aspartame were reaching critical mass. I can’t recall any convincing evidence that it’s any more harmful than the other synthetic sweeteners, but aspartame was being talked about a lot, and not positively.

Fast-forward one year and Pepsi is returning to aspartame. Actually, in an ironic New Coke/Classic Coke kind of way, it plans to keep the sucralose-ace-K blend in Diet Pepsi and to launch a new diet cola with the old formula with aspartame. Let’s see which one does better.

Being the old-school guy that I am, I drink a fair amount of diet soda, and our favorite drink at home is diet cherry cola. While I had a slight preference for the harder-to-find Coca-Cola Cherry Zero (sweetened with aspartame and ace-K), I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry and regular Diet Coke Cherry. Usually, I bought whichever was on sale.

Then last August I noticed the change in the Diet Pepsi cherry. Even before the news of the formulation change sunk in. And I don’t have a sophisticated palate or discriminating taste. I’ve been avoiding the Pepsi product ever since.

When I visited PepsiCo headquarters last fall, as the company was our 2015 Processor of the Year, I brought this up with Mehmood Kahn, executive vice president and chief scientific officer. He acknowledged there were other complaints but said the company felt it was the right thing to do and sales would support the change.

Obviously, I was not alone in not supporting the change. Feedback, most of it online or via social media, indicated a significant number of consumers hated the move. Moreover, instead of reviving sales, the change only accelerated Diet Pepsi’s decline.

Taste and particularly the sense of sweetness are complex physiologic things. I don’t pretend to understand all the science, but there’s a lot of science, as well as genetics and the old paradox of two people responding to the same stimulus differently. Determining what consumers want is even more difficult and certainly less scientific. Factor in the vocal minority versus the great silent majority and you never know.

I apologize to PepsiCo for drawing attention to this unplanned experiment. I actually think the company should be applauded for experimentation and for trying to do the right thing. Lauded, too, for knowing when to take a mulligan. Sure, it mostly was and is about business and sales figures, but thinking in terms of the consumer, as dangerous as that can be, is always a good thing.

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