Coke offers a tentative and lame ‘defense of aspartame’

Posted by
August 15, 2013

Coke’s “grandpa” ad showing in the UK released the same day as its “defense of aspartame” ad in the U.S.


Have you heard the news?  “Coke’s fighting back!”

That’s right.  It was such a big announcement, it even made the ABC World News on Tuesday evening, and was subsequently hyped on NBC and Internet sites like

And what, exactly, is this reportedly colossal counter-offensive by the Coca-Cola Company designed to accomplish?  Why, to defend the company’s use of artificial sweeteners — and especially aspartame — against adverse publicity (much of it having to do with the many adverse reactions to aspartame) that may be behind a noticeable slump in diet soda sales.

Or, according to an NBC News report out of Chicago, the goal was described by Caren Pasquale Seckler, vice president of social commitment at Coca-Cola, as being “to clear up the confusion around diet sweeteners.”

Given the extent of the coverage, one might think that a major campaign had been rolled out to try and debunk the growing mountain of scientific and anecdotal evidence of all the ways that aspartame may be hazardous to our health and well-being. But in actuality, the effort supposedly under way, which might perhaps best be described as tentative in scope and tepid in tone, seems to involve a lot of sound bites and very little fury — in fact, very little of anything that might justify all the media fanfare.

What the first wave of this assault consists of, in fact, is a print ad appearing in the Atlanta edition of USA Today and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta being the home base of Coca-Cola), which will also run in the Chicago Tribune next week. Whether there will be any follow-up, Seckler is reported to have said, will depend on the “response” in  those two cities.

Something to ‘feel good about’? Really?

The content of the ad, itself, however, hardly seems likely to evoke much more than a “ho-hum” response at best. Under an unobtrusive headline reading “Quality products you can always feel good about” and a picture of two ordinary-looking women, one having lunch and the other holding a bottle of Coke,  is a carefully constructed message of reassurance, which claims that for 127 years, “people have always been able to trust the quality of our products and everything that goes into them,”and  “that’s something that will never change.”

But then the ad goes on to indicate that there have, indeed, been changes in Coca-Cola products — those that “go along with the times and people’s tastes.” which translate into offering people “high quality low-and no-calories sweeteners including aspartame … “great tasting options they can feel good about.”  And while acknowledging that “some people have questions” about their use, it goes on to assure readers that “time and again,” such sweeteners “have shown (sic) to be safe, high quality alternatives to sugar,” with “the safety of aspartame supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years.”

So there you have it — the use of aspartame, while admittedly representing one of several changes in Coca-Cola products (another being the substitution of obesity-promoting high fructose corn syrup for sugar in its caloric sodas), is “something that people can feel good about.”

Except, that is, when they don’t.

That’s one of the things this particular ad makes no mention of — the thousands of people who have suffered adverse reactions to aspartame, which have manifested themselves in symptoms ranging from dizziness and memory loss to seizures, blinding headaches and even temporary blindness. Nor does it mention the studies that have associated aspartame with the development of brain tumors in lab animals, nor that, as Citizens for Health Board Chair James S. Turner has noted, “after aspartame went on the market, a particular type of brain tumor, the same type that showed up in the rodent studies we were relying on over 30 years ago, increased by 10 percent in people in the United States.” Nor is there any mention of the fact that aspartame is considered by experts to be an “excitotoxin” capable of killing certain brain cells by literally exciting them to death, especially in children and the elderly.

But, oddly enough, the elderly do have a prominent role in another Coke ad — a TV commercial released in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, the very same day the defense-of-aspartame ad appeared in Atlanta. Its theme: “Live like grandpa did.” To the accompaniment of Tom Jones’ “It ‘s Not Unusual” (although what this song has to do with the ad isn’t exactly clear), a member of today’s generation is contrasted via split screen with his “grandpa,” who back in the day is shown doing things like climbing stairs, eating an apple instead of chips, cooking dinner, and sitting at a table. The underlying message, of course, is that grandpa always enjoyed Coke — and you can still do likewise.

Actually, the idea of living like grandpa did is one that kind of appeals to us — especially seeing how the only thing used to sweeten the Coke back in grandpa’s era was pure sugar, without the addition of “great-tasting options” like aspartame and HFCS. It could, in fact, be one reason why the grandpas shown in this commercial are still so spry and healthy looking.