The Associated Press reported yesterday that Pepsi is quietly rolling out cans of Diet Pepsi made with a new sweetener, designed to increase the cola’s shelf life and “fresh” taste (if you’re puzzled by that last one, so am I). The sweetener, acesulfame potassium, is mixed with aspartame in the new cans; old Diet Pepsi contained only aspartame. The AP article assures us that the new sweetener won’t change the old Diet Pepsi flavor — but it says nothing about the safety of acesulfame or any potential health concerns.
So … what is acesulfame potassium?
Acesulfame postassium – also known as Acesulfame K or Ace K — is a calorie-free artificial sweetener that’s 200 times sweeter than table sugar. According to AP, it can be found in a a lot of foods “including baked goods, chewing gum and gelatin desserts.” It has a slightly bitter aftertaste, which is why it‘s usually mixed with other artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, when used in processed foods and drinks. But it’s attractive to food manufacturers because it’s less volatile and heat sensitive than aspartame, thus giving products a longer shelf life.
Is it already in Diet Pepsi?
Cans of Diet Pepsi in New York, Nebraska and the Bay Area now list acesulfame potassium as an ingredient. It will hit other places come the new year, says AP.
Are there health or safety concerns with acesfulame?
In a 2011 post here, nutritionist Lauren Slayton summed up nicely why almost all artificial sweeteners — saccharin, aspartame, sucalose, etc. — are a bad nutrition move:
“A study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that artificial sweeteners don’t “turn on” satiety signals the way that sugar (protein or fat) does, which can encourage those eating them to just eat more. And a Purdue University study showed that artificial sweeteners may actually disrupt the body’s natural ability to gauge calories. In short, sweeteners don’t satisfy us, and may affect our ability to become satiated from other foods.”
As far as tacesulfame potassium in particular: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it as safe for general use, and EU committees have reached similar conclusions. Critics say the sweetener hasn’t been properly tested and could be hazardous to our health.
Studies on acesulfame K are few, but those that have been done, in animals, have shown some potential dangers — increased insulin secretion, increased cancer in males. Acesulfame K could also cause stomach pain and other side effects in people with food additive sensitivities.
While the research may be to scant to say the acesulfame K is dangerous, they’re also too scant to conclude it isn’t, according to researcher Myra Karstadt. In a 2006 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, she writes that “the 1970s tests of acesulfame—two tests carried out in rats and one in mice—are inadequate to establish lack of potential carcinogenicity.”
The bottom line seems to be that nobody knows, really, how safe or unsafe acesulfame potassium is for humans to consume — though its hardly more dangerous than aspartame, which Pepsi was previously using exclusively to sweeten Diet Pepsi. In general, drinking diet soda — even though it’s calorie and sugar free — is something to do only occasionally or avoid entirely. It seems the addition of acesulfame potassium to Diet Pepsi isn’t likely to make it any better for you or any worse for you.