(USA TODAY) -- A feisty Coca-Cola print ad to run on Wednesday defending its use of artificial sweeteners signals that the company's problems aren't just with sugary soft drinks, but also with diet soft drinks.
The soft drink giant, facing growing challenges and sales pressures across its line of sugary and non-sugary colas, has plans over the next several days to run newspaper ads that note its diet drinks - many of which are made with aspartame - are safe. "The safety of aspartame is supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years," the ad assures consumers.
The ad will appear in issues of USA TODAY in the Atlanta region on Wednesday followed by The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Thursday. The ad also will appear next week in the Chicago Tribune.
For Coke, it's a calculated business strategy to take the offensive as it battles a growing number of critics and competitors that have influenced consumers to move away from soft drinks of all kinds. The ad, under the headline "Quality Products You Can Always Feel Good About," offers to share with consumers third-party studies on the benefits and safety of low- and no-calorie sweeteners.
Coke's Caren Pasquale Seckler, vice president of social commitment, said the ad's purpose "is to bring to light what is often overlooked, that low- and no-calorie sweeteners which have been tested extensively are safe and beneficial in weight management."
The ad represents the next phase of a campaign Coca-Cola Co. launched in January to push back at critics who blame its sugary drinks for fueling obesity rates. The first wave of ads outlined the company's commitment to fighting obesity and pointed to the many diet options it offers. Now Coca-Cola is trying to reassure people that those lower-calorie drinks aren't harmful.
"Coke is trying to get out front and proactively defend these diet sweeteners," said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, which tracks the industry.
Sales of diet soft drinks are falling at a faster rate than regular soft drinks in the U.S., according to Beverage Digest. Last year, for example, sales volume for Coke fell 1%, while Diet Coke fell 3%. Pepsi fell 3.4%, while Diet Pepsi fell 6.2%.
The declines come even though the Food and Drug Administration says aspartame may be safely used in foods as a sweetener, and the ingredient can be found in a wide array of other types of drinks and foods. The American Cancer Society also notes that most studies using people have found that aspartame is not linked to an increased risk of cancer, including the largest study on the topic.
But not everyone feels comfortable about the sweetener.
"Despite claims from Coke and other companies about the safety of aspartame, we still don't know about its long-term effects," says Karen Congro, a nutritionist and director of the Wellness for Life Club program at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. "Relying on artificial sweeteners probably causes cravings for sweets and sugar, which can contribute to obesity and poor eating habits."
Congro says it's possible that the brain reacts to artificial sweeteners in diet soft drinks and other products by sending out insulin, which can make people hungry - especially for sugar. There is a growing backlash not only against diet soft drinks, but many products made with artificial sweeteners and other artificial ingredients, she says.