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Diet Sodas Take Another Hit

Major media pick up new study suggesting health issues related to artificial sweeteners

NEW YORK -- Diet sodas just took another hit in the media. Reuters artificial sweetener headline

On Monday, JAMA Pediatrics published a study suggesting that women who consumed diet soda daily while pregnant were twice as likely to have overweight babies. In just a few short hours, the study was picked up by CBS News, Fox News, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters.

While Coca-Cola Co. and others would surely debate the science, it is these types of headlines that continue to plague the cola category, according to a research report by beverage analyst Vivien Azer, Cowen and Co., New York.

Such headlines have "clearly weighed on diet [sales] volumes," Azer wrote. "While the validity of the science being published can be questioned, at the end of the day, we believe that even pseudo-science can impact consumer purchase behavior in the digital age."

With research continuing to focus on the effect that artificial sweeteners have on women's health in particular, "this should prove increasingly problematic, as female consumers overindex to diet CSDs," she said.

Azer has long compared soda to cigarettes in terms of consumer perception and potential regulation. "The important difference being that we are not convinced that soda has the same pricing power as cigarettes, at least now, as we view there to be far more marginal consumers in the CSD category than there are in tobacco," she said.

Sales of diet soda have been on the decline for years. Many analysts pin the decline on health concerns about the artificial sweetener aspartame.

In response to the latest study, the American Beverage Association called out studies that counter the JAMA Pediatrics report.

"If you look beyond the headlines, you will discover that the JAMA Pediatrics study does not prove drinking these beverages while pregnant in any way causes obesity in infancy or childhood," ABA said. "Even the authors themselves acknowledge this, stating, 'study limitations that include the potential for error in self-reported dietary outcomes.' "

The group, which is funded in part by Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, said the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists "deem the use of some low- and no-calorie sweeteners in beverages and foods as safe during pregnancy" and note that "various organizations around the world including the World Health Organization, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority have repeatedly reaffirmed their safety, noting that they are not linked to adverse health outcomes."

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