Fat Chance: Diet Coke Fights Obesity?

August 28, 2013 | Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins

Organic Consumers Association

Fat Chance: Diet Coke Fights Obesity?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Food Safety page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

It was laughable when Coca-Cola launched a campaign to fight obesity. And even more laughable when the king of soda’s anti-obesity campaign shifted all the blame for those extra pounds to lack of exercise and chairs (yes, chairs).

But now, the company that donated $1.7 million to defeat last year’s GMO labeling initiative in California has gone from laughable to dangerous. In the wake of declining sales of its Diet Coke brand, Coke has rolled out an ad campaign carefully and deceptively crafted to convince consumers that aspartame, the artificial sweetener (whose patent was at one time owned by Monsanto) in Diet Coke, is a “healthy alternative” to sugar.

The new campaign, being tested in the Atlanta and Chicago markets, takes the form of full-page advertisements disguised as public service announcements. The message? Don’t believe all that bad stuff you’ve heard about aspartame.

Aspartame is perfectly safe. It’s better for you than sugar. Drinking Diet Coke will help you stay thin and healthy.

It’s a sweet story, concocted by the marketing wizards at Coke who are desperate to keep the diet soda money train rolling. But it’s not true. Multiple studies, including one published in 2010 by the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine have concluded just the opposite. Aspartame, they say, actually contributes to weight gain by stimulating your appetite. Other studies have revealed that aspartame increases carbohydrate cravings and stimulates fat storage and weight gain.

The link between aspartame and increased weight gain is old news. So is the fact that aspartame, far from being a “healthy alternative” to sugar or anything else, has for years been the focus of studies declaring it unequivocally unhealthy, and suggesting that it has no place in our food supply. Aspartame has been linked to brain cancer and to the accumulation of formaldehyde, known to cause gradual damage to the nervous system, the immune system and to cause irreversible genetic damage at long-term, low-level exposure.

In1995, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) documented 92 aspartame-related symptoms, including migraines, memory loss, seizures, obesity, infertility, dizziness, change in seizures, fatigue, neurological problems and a host of others.

Aspartame is not food. It’s defined as a synthetic compound of two amino acids (l-aspartyl-l-phenylalanine o-methyl ester). The compound was discovered accidentally in 1965, by James M. Schlatter, a chemist at G.D. Searle Company. Schlatter was testing an anti-ulcer drug. When he licked his finger and discovered that his concoction tasted sweet, the market for artificial sweeteners was born.

Is aspartame safe? Not according to multiple studies conducted over decades. And, at one time, not according to the FDA. In 1975, the FDA put a hold on aspartame’s approval, citing deficiencies in the studies conducted by Searle and its contractors. An analysis of 164 studies of aspartame’s potential impact on human safety found that of the 90 non-industry-sponsored studies, 83 identified one or more problems with aspartame. Of the 74 industry-sponsored studies, all 74 claimed that aspartame was safe.

So how did aspartame get into our food supply? We have Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense to thank. In 1981, Rumsfeld, who had previously served as CEO of Searle, hand-picked Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, Arthur Hayes Hull, Jr. It was Hull who ultimately gave aspartame the green light.

Here’s how it went down. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame as a sweetener in beverages. Hull, the brand new FDA commissioner, recommended by Rumsfeld, appointed a five-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry's prior decision. (A board of inquiry had been formed in 1975 when the FDA first questioned the validity of Searle’s studies on aspartame). When it became clear that the Scientific Commission was on track to uphold the 1975 ban by a 3-2 decision, Hull installed a sixth member on the commission. That led to a deadlocked vote. Hull then personally cast the tie-breaking vote. Voila. Aspartame was approved.

Hull soon left the FDA and eventually landed at Burston-Marsteller, the PR firm for Searle and for years, Monsanto. In 1985, Monsanto bought Searle and later spun off the company under the name NutraSweet. But not before Rumsfeld earned a handsome $12-million bonus, presumably for his role in greasing the wheels for aspartame’s approval.

In an article published earlier this year in the New York Times, entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Michael Moss exposed the junk food industry for employing chemists to concoct additives intended to hook people on the very food that is making us, including our children, not only obese, but chronically ill.

When one of the leading Junk Food Giants says it wants to help fight obesity by selling you more Diet Coke, nothing could be further from the truth. But when it takes that campaign a step farther, by paying newspapers to run full-page ads disguised as scientific articles, that’s deceptive advertising at its worst.

We should be celebrating a 3-percent decline in sales of Diet Coke. And we should be boycotting any product that contains aspartame, a synthetic chemical compound linked to a host of health issues, including obesity, and brought to market under the shadow of dirty politics.

Coke is “testing” its new ad campaign in Chicago and Atlanta. Let’s tell Coca-Cola’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, and other executives at Coke, that we don’t appreciate their new ad campaign, and we’d like them to pull it immediately. Ads intended to pass for “scientific articles” are an insult to our intelligence and a threat to the health of consumers.

Katherine Paul is Director of Communications for the Organic Consumers Association.

Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Organic Consumers Association.