Coca-Cola India recently brought its wildly anticipated Zero drink to India amidst much fanfare — Coke Zero is touted as the next step from Diet Coke by the global beverage giant. It is also low-calorie, but closer in taste to the original Coke. To achieve this, Coke has used a different flavoured base (caramel) for Zero, leading to its immense popularity abroad where it was originally launched in 2005. Diet Coke contains 0.2 kcal in a serving of 100 ml, while Coke Zero contains 0.3 kcal. Many reports in the media have claimed over the years that the sleek black brand of Coke Zero was launched in an attempt to capture the male market, which has shied away from adopting Diet Coke because of its reputation as a favourite with women.
Instead of sugar, both use a combination of artificial sweeteners — aspartame and acesulfame potassium. Coke Zero was initially launched in some countries with sodium cyclamate as the primary sweetener, a relatively inexpensive artificial agent ruled unsafe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over cancer concerns since 1969. Consumer safety campaigns led to its removal from Mexico in 2008 and from Venezuela in 2009. That version of Coke Zero has not entered India, where food safety laws are considered much more lax.
Artificial sweeteners provide the sweetness without the calories, and have thus become one of the most widely used food additives in a country that is now considered the diabetes capital of the world. But the sweeteners are not without their share of doubts about their health risks. People with the rare genetic condition Phenylketonuria (PKU) are unable to metabolise phenylalanine which is present in aspartame. Independent laboratory studies have found aspartame to have caused cancer in mice. According to Srikant Sharma, head of internal medicine at Moolchand Hospital in New Delhi, “Aspartame in large quantities is believed to cause headache, nausea, even neurological problems.” The Economist recently carried the findings of a paper published in Nature, the scientific journal, detailing a lesser-known health concern which ironically connects the use of artificial sweeteners to obesity. It did so by providing evidence that while artificial sweeteners such as aspartame may not be bad for the human body directly, they can impact the bacteria in the stomach negatively, which in turn can impact the host.
While various studies such as these have pointed towards possible health risks posed by artificial sweeteners, none has been able to prove their negative impact on humans conclusively. A spokesperson for Coca-Cola India responded to Business Standard’s query by recalling the organisations that have verified the safe and legal use of aspartame. “Aspartame is used in over 6,000 food and beverage products around the world, and has been used for more than 30 years,” a company executive says. “Authorities that have approved aspartame include the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, which is an international expert scientific committee administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. In 2013, The European Food Safety Authority reconfirmed that aspartame is safe, following the most comprehensive review of aspartame that has ever been undertaken.” The consensus in the consumer community lies somewhere between ‘so yes aspartame may still not be entirely good for health, but maybe not as bad as one thought.’
Sharma contends that regular colas must be avoided by people suffering from any insulin-resistant disease such as obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia, poly-cystic ovarian syndrome and diabetes. For such patients, diet colas are a viable replacement. The important thing to remember though, is that “at the end of the day, both Diet Coke and Coke Zero are processed products and come packed with chemical preservatives and additives — the calories may be zero but so are the nutrients. It’s just the taste you get, no vitamins or minerals.”
For cola enthusiasts, the key word is moderation. According to the Coca-Cola website, more than 40 per cent of the colas Coke sells in the UK are low cal or zero cal. Coco-Cola India declined to share their numbers, but it won’t be a far stretch to predict that in a health-conscious yet overly indulgent urban Indian populace, it sure looks like Coke Zero is here to stay.