About eight years ago, in response to customer concerns about potential health risks associated with the artificial sweetener aspartame, PepsiCo decided to remove the ingredient from its popular diet soda.

Sale failed. A year later, aspartame was back in Diet Pepsi.

Today, the top three ingredients listed in the small print on the back of cans and bottles of Diet Pepsi — and on its competitor Diet Coke — are water, caramel color, and aspartame.

A trip through the grocery store reveals the ingredient on the labels of not only diet sodas but also diet teas, sugar-free gum, sugar-free energy drinks and diet lemonade. According to some estimates, thousands of products contain aspartame.

The use of aspartame, which is commonly known by the brand name Equal, in food and beverages has long been scrutinized. The latest iteration came Thursday, when a World Health Organization agency said aspartame may cause cancer and urged people who consume a significant number of drinks with aspartame to switch to water or other unsweetened beverages.

But even with the emergence of many new artificial sweeteners, as well as those that are plant- and fruit-based, Big Food simply cannot abandon aspartame, and analysts do not expect it this time. That’s because the ingredient is one of the least expensive sugar alternatives to use, it works especially well in drinks and mixes, and people like the way it tastes.

There was also pushback on the urgency of the WHO announcement. In a swift rebuke, the US Food and Drug Administration said it disagreed with the findings, reiterating its stance that aspartame is safe. And a second WHO committee said a 150-pound person would need to drink more than a dozen cans of Diet Coke a day to exceed the safe threshold for the sweetener.

“The big beverage companies do contingency planning for months, experimenting with different sweeteners, with the goal of making the taste and quality of the diet drinks as consistent as possible with existing products,” said Garrett Nelson, who covers the beverage industry. at CFRA Research. But they are unlikely to change the recipe unless they see a significant drop in consumer demand according to the WHO report, he said.

“If consumers really stop buying Diet Coke because of this report, if sales start to suffer, it might be time to go to Plan B,” Mr. Nelson said.

Coca-Cola referred questions to the American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm for the industry. “Aspartame is safe,” Kevin Keane, the organization’s interim president, said in a statement.

PepsiCo did not respond to requests for comment, but in an interview with Bloomberg Markets that aired Thursday, Hugh F. Johnston, PepsiCo’s chief financial officer, said he did not expect a big consumer backlash.

“I believe that, in reality, this is not going to be a big issue with consumers based on just the preponderance of evidence that suggests aspartame is safe,” Mr. Johnston said.

The assessment by the WHO agency adds to consumer confusion about aspartame, but it is also the latest in a recent series of studies focusing on the potential risks and questioning the true benefits of artificial sweeteners. Just a few weeks ago, the WHO advised against using artificial sweeteners for weight control, saying a review of studies did not show a long-term benefit in reducing body fat in children or adults. The review also suggested that the sweeteners were linked to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This year, researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a to study who found a chemical formed after digestion of another sweetener, sucralose, breaks DNA and can contribute to health problems.

For years, food and beverage companies and regulators have routinely denounced research that raises questions about artificial sweeteners, broadly arguing that the studies were flawed or inconclusive or that the health risks were miniscule.

“A large body of scientific evidence shows that low- and no-calorie sweeteners provide effective and safe options for reducing sugar and calorie consumption,” said Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, the lobbying association for manufacturers and suppliers of nearly two dozen. alternative sweeteners, said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Indeed, most food and beverage companies that use aspartame are reluctant to switch in part because aspartame is less expensive than other alternatives and is 200 times sweeter than sugar, meaning a little goes a very long way.

“One of the advantages of aspartame is that it’s been made for so long that manufacturers have really refined the costs and processing of it so well and they get a superior product,” said Glenn Roy, an adjunct professor of organic chemistry at Vassar College, who spent . more than three decades working at food companies, including NutraSweet, General Foods and PepsiCo.

On top of that, the FDA approved aspartame in 1974, giving companies decades of data and information about what aspartame can and cannot do in products. For example, it can enhance and extend certain fruit flavors, such as cherry and orange, making it a preferred sweetener for drinks and chewing gum. But when heated, aspartame loses its sweetness, making it less desirable for baked or cooked products.

Food and beverage companies are releasing new sugar-free or low-sugar products in response to consumer demand, but many are made with newer sweeteners or a blend of sweeteners. Every new product undergoes a litany of sensory and taste tests before it is released.

But for products that have been around for decades, like diet sodas, loyal customers are used to a specific taste, and they could be turned off by changes in ingredients, scientists warn.

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