In the world of nutrition and health, few topics have stirred up as much debate as artificial sweeteners. One such sweetener, aspartame, found in popular products like Diet Coke, chewing gum, and yoghurt, has been at the centre of a recent storm following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) review of aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, and global media coverage that ensued.
Our team has looked into the ongoing debate, key developments and the impact the debate has had on the drinks industry. Penta’s Strategy and Intelligence teams analyse developments across sectors, advising clients on opportunities, challenges, and risks.
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On June 29, 2023, Reuters reported that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), was on the verge of classifying aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” following the completion of its assessment of the sweetener.
Simultaneously, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) conducted a parallel investigation.
Both reviews unveiled their findings on July 14, 2023. IARC indeed categorized aspartame as a potential carcinogen due to “limited evidence,” placing it in category 2B, alongside kimchi and aloe vera.
In contrast, JECFA concluded that aspartame is safe for consumption. Despite calls for further research, their assessment advised consumers and manufacturers not to panic. After scrutinising the evidence presented by IARC, the committee chose not to alter the existing acceptable daily intake (ADI) of aspartame, which continues to range from zero to 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For example, a person weighing 70 kilograms would need to consume between nine and 14 cans of diet soft drinks containing aspartame in a day to exceed this limit. This evaluation received endorsement from the Food Standards Agency and Cancer Research UK.
Through data analysis, our team saw a peak in visibility when the WHO first announced a report on Aspartame on 14 July; by the end of August, this quickly returned to pre-announcement volumes. Visibility is a metric combining the total volume, influence, prominence, and reach of mentions of each tag by day.
The topic’s visibility quickly declined partly due to the industry’s quick response, including The British Soft Drinks Association, which asserted that aspartame is safe and consumers do not need to change their drinking habits. There was also pushback regarding the urgency of the WHO’s announcement. In a swift response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressed disagreement with the findings, reiterating its stance that aspartame is safe.
Visibility is determined by Penta’s IP, which aids communication professionals in assessing content impact more effectively. Each piece of content receives a score, but then we also carry a weighting on those sentiment scores. This weighting is determined by various factors, primarily recognising that not all content sources are equal. We weight content based on readership and perceived credibility. For instance, a positive article on the front page of the Financial Times carries more significance than a negative tweet with few followers. Additionally, we factor in elements like whether the company is mentioned in the headline or the first three sentences and the likelihood of reader retention. These components collectively contribute to the scoring process, forming the quantitative foundation of our measurement.
The prominent coverage seen was from regional and consumer news; we saw a peak on Twitter with consumers tagging particular brands. However, this didn’t significantly impact the industry’s overall reputation. Through this analysis, we can identify individual brands and companies impacted. If you would like to understand more about this, Please contact us here.
According to the Beverage Digest, a trade publication, Aspartame is used in some 15% of the top 10 carbonated soft drinks sold in the US. Aspartame has been the subject of study and debate for the past 50 years, with differing conclusions drawn regarding its safety. Despite this ongoing controversy, the additive is authorized for use in food and beverages in many parts of the world. This topic will likely remain debated as an individual additive and in the broader context of ultra-processed foods. The recent WHO announcement had only a minor impact on the industry’s reputation. The contributing factor to this was the industry’s quick response, and despite the large volume of coverage, the majority of the coverage seen was neutral. Nevertheless, continuous monitoring of this topic is imperative, given its potential to significantly affect reputation.
At Penta, we remain committed to tracking and analyzing this issue as it evolves. Our expertise enables us to evaluate how various subjects impact industries, companies, and individual brands, aiding businesses in understanding the associated risks and opportunities regarding their reputation and stakeholder perceptions. If you require further information on how we can support you, please do not hesitate to reach out to us using the contact details provided below.