Home Food 101 The Funny Thing About Pepsi Zero Sugar and Other ‘Sugar-Free’ Diet Drinks

The Funny Thing About Pepsi Zero Sugar and Other ‘Sugar-Free’ Diet Drinks

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Last night while watching that thing that resulted in—ugh—that team—winning that game, I noticed that the half-time game was sponsored by “Pepsi Zero Max.”

What the hell is that?

From CNBC:

So maybe it wasn’t the aspartame after all.

Pepsi ditched the controversial sweetener last August in a move to placate health-conscious consumers looking to cut unnatural chemicals from their diets. Aspartame had been linked to cancer in lab mice, and industry executives blamed the decline in sales on unfounded concerns people had about the artificial sweetener.

In announcing the earlier decision to drop aspartame in April 2015, Pepsi vice president Seth Kaufman said: “Diet cola drinkers in the U.S. told us they wanted aspartame-free Diet Pepsi and we’re delivering.”

Now, Pepsi is reversing course and bringing back the sweetener. Pepsi saw diet soda sales plummet almost 11 percent in the first quarter and received consumer feedback that indicated its aspartame-free sodas weren’t quite as tasty as the original recipe.

“[Pepsi] was betting on this trend we’ve seen where some consumers are trying to avoid aspartame,” said Duane Stanford, an editor with Beverage Digest, who first reported the company’s product relaunch. “So they were betting on that trend and what they discovered is that there are still a subset of consumers who don’t really think one way or the other about the aspartame. They are more concerned about how Diet Pepsi tastes.”


Pepsi will continue to sell the aspartame-free versions of its Diet Pepsi in its silver can, but will also begin selling Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend in a retro blue can. The classically sweetened cola will only be available in 12-packs, 2-liter bottles and 20-ounce bottles at retail stores.

In addition, Pepsi will rebrand its Pepsi Max soda. The diet cola will be renamed Pepsi Zero Sugar, but its recipe will not be altered. The cosmetic change will more clearly indicate that it is a zero-calorie product, according to the company. Pepsi Max is sweetened with aspartame and Ace-K. [source]

So, I get it.

In a world where we’re told to focus primarily on calories and are given very few tools to understand exactly what that means, I understand why and how that translates to “Yeah, I can eat what I want as long as I make sure the calories are as low as possible.”

But—and this is an important but—there’s something funny about diet drinks.

Another 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years as those who didn’t drink diet soda. The study analyzed data from 749 people ages 65 and older who were asked, every couple of years, how many cans of soda they drank a day, and how many of those sodas were diet or regular.

Those answers ended up being extremely predictive of abdominal-fat gain, even after the researchers adjusted for factors like diabetes, smoking and levels of physical activity. People who didn’t drink diet soda gained about 0.8 in. around their waists over the study period, but people who drank diet soda daily gained 3.2 in. Those who fell in the middle — occasional drinkers of diet soda — gained about 1.8 in.

That change in waist circumference is especially concerning because it highlights an unfortunate truth about weight distribution: the belly is a bad place for extra pounds. The kind that pads the abs from the inside, called visceral fat, is associated with increased cardiovascular disease, inflammation and Type 2 diabetes. [source]

But wait—there’s more!

[…] some experts believe that artificial sweeteners trigger sweetness receptors in the brain, which cause the body to prepare itself for an influx of calories. Even though those calories don’t arrive, the body still craves them, and that may cause people to ultimately eat more calories overall, putting them at a risk for weight gain.

“Regular sugar has caloric consequences,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Helen Hazuda, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. And one of those is that it triggers satiety — a sense of fullness or satisfaction. “Your body is used to knowing that a sweet taste means you are ingesting energy in the form of calories that, if you don’t burn them off, is going to convert to fat,” she says. Artificial sweeteners, however, confuse our bodies and weaken the link in our brains between sweetness and calories. That, Hazuda says, can lead to weight gain and cravings for sweeter and sweeter treats. [source]

To be clear, there’s no legitimate proof that says diet soda causes weight gain. What’s understood, however, is that regular consumption of diet drinks increases the risk of weight gain. It’s like speeding—no, not all speeders have crashes, but people who speed more frequently are far more likely to experience a crash as opposed to, say, those who drive the speed limit.

I have a theory as to why that is.

The goal of responsible weight management shouldn’t be to merely find ways to eat “what you want” but eat it in as few calories as possible. You will always want the sugary, fatty, and salty—sodapop hits on two of the three in that list—because it’s literally how our brains have been programmed to respond to those kinds of stimuli. You want it, you want more of it, you want it when you think of it, you want it when you see it, and you want as much of it as you can get your hands on. It’s a universal experience.

However, an important part of weight management is understanding those impulses and finding healthy ways to restrain yourself—not merely finding ways to indulge those impulses that should, in theory, reduce your likelihood of weight gain.

But the end game is not merely about a reduction of calories—it’s really about developing the self-control that will help you adhere to a new lower level of calorie consumption as you lose weight.

The funny thing about diet drinks is that they’re all manufactured by companies who also produce other forms of junk food. PepsiCo, who makes Pepsi, also makes Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Lays, and more. PepsiCo isn’t a company that’s trying to help you develop self-control—their bottom line is built on ensuring your ability to buy as much of their product as you can for a low price (hence, why they use so much filler to bring down the cost of their products), eat as much of it as you can as fast as you can (bcause, if you eat it up quickly, you’ll have to buy more quickly), and then developing enough brand loyalty in you that you’ll buy that same product again when you return to the grocery store.

It’s not a conspiracy—it’s just good business… that also happens to be bad for your waistline.

If PepsiCo can create a product that will subvert your initial desire to develop “will power” and self-control, and make money while doing it, why wouldn’t they? (Even if aspartame has a questionable back story and potentially troubling health risks?) I mean, come on—it should surprise no one that this product is re-introduced after sales of sugar-sweetened beverages across the board all sink in sales.

The likely reason why people who consume diet soda still manage to gain more weight than those who drink regular soda, though I don’t recommend drinking either, is simple. People who are more inclined to drink diet may find themselves feeling comfortable drinking more of it because there aren’t any calories but, even though there’s no calories, the drink still impacts your brain’s understanding of “sweet.” It is still an appetite stimulant and, frankly, a sugar stimulant, as well.

If there’s one thing I know both personally and through research, it’s this: the more sugar you consume in a given setting, the more you move your brain’s threshold for how much sugar it wants next time you sit down to eat or drink something sweet. You find yourself putting more sugar in your oatmeal, more sugar in your tea, more sugar everywhere. That’s something that regular diet drink consumption can make worse.

So, whenever you hear people talking about Pepsi Zero Sugar, remember—just. say. no. Your body—particularly your tummy—will thank you for it!

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