After a test run in Iowa and Wisconsin last year, Pepsi NEXT will have its national U.S. launch on March 26. Billed as a "mid-calorie" soft drink, the latest PepsiCo beverage offers 60 percent less sugar and 60 percent fewer calories than regular Pepsi.
Hybrid sodas (which are neither regular or "diet") are not a new concept. This is PepsiCo's third attempt at a "mid-calorie beverage." 1995′s Pepsi XL -- with 50 percent less sugar and 50 percent fewer calories than regular Pepsi -- cost $1.5 million to produce and $8 million to advertise, and was not a hit with consumers. In 2004, the 70-calorie Pepsi Edge launched, only to quickly fizzle with consumers.
Despite the beverage industry's claim that these beverages -- which contain high-fructose corn syrup along with a variety of artificial sweeteners -- are "game changers," they simply combine the worst of both worlds: empty calories and controversial chemicals. According to trade magazine Beverage Industry, Pepsi Next "would likely be sweetened with a mixture of high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, ace-K and aspartame, while another source said there could still be some tweaks to the sweetener blend."
These artificial sweeteners each come with their own concerns. Sucralose -- also known as the artificial sweetener Splenda -- has been shown to negatively affect gut microflora and decrease absorption of some minerals in rat studies. Acesulfame potassium, another common artificial sweetener, has had many alarming carcinogenic links, and researchers have valid reasons as to why studies determining its "safety" have been deeply flawed.
Very often, these chemicals are defended on the basis that they are "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) by the Food & Drug Administration. That, however, is not as assuring as it may sound. Politics can trump scientific objectivity (the approval of aspartame has quite an interesting, if disturbing, backstory), and there isn't any data on the health effects of consistent artificial sweetener consumption over the span of several decades.
There is also the growing body of research that points out that artificial sweeteners do not activate "food reward" pathways in our brains. (In other words, they may not be as helpful from a weight loss or weight maintenance standpoint as was previously thought.)
These chemicals also assault our taste buds and accustom them to flavors unrivaled by nature. Drop artificial sweeteners from your diet, and foods and beverages that once seemed "mildly sweet" will taste much sweeter. (Keep in mind it takes roughly three weeks for our taste buds to adjust to lower levels of sweetness in the diet.) This is why, even if -- and that is a rather big "if" -- artificial sweeteners pose no threat to our health, I always suggest limiting added sugars and avoiding artificial sweeteners.
The best thing Americans can do for their health is cut down on their intake of all sodas, regardless of their caloric content. The United States has the highest per-capita consumption of soft drinks in the world (almost a gallon per week per person).
"Health and wellness" may be cited as motivators behind Pepsi NEXT, but America needs mid-calorie soda as much as the Gulf of Mexico needs another oil spill. May I suggest drinking more water? What a concept!
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