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Diet Pepsi With Aspartame Is Making a Comeback

June 27, 2016, 2:08 PM UTC

Diet Pepsi hasn’t kicked its aspartame habit just yet.

PepsiCo (PEP) on Monday confirmed that it would make some key changes to the company’s diet soda portfolio in the U.S. this fall, including the return of a Diet Pepsi with aspartame after a big, splashy change to the beverage’s formula last year.

Beginning in September, Pepsi says that the core Diet Pepsi brand will remain sweetened with sucralose and Ace-K, reflecting the formula change Pepsi made last year. But Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend (with aspartame) will be added to the mix, sold in 12-packs, 2-liter bottles and 20-ounce bottles at retail outlets. Pepsi MAX, meanwhile, will retain the same formula but now be called Pepsi Zero Sugar – a change that is meant to make it clearer to consumers that the beverage has no calories. It is also sweetened with aspartame.

“Consumers want choice in diet colas, so we’re refreshing our U.S. lineup to provide three options that meet differing needs and taste preferences,” a Pepsi representative said in a statement.

The news was originally reported by industry publication Beverage Digest, which remarked that Pepsi’s move was reminiscent of rival Coca Cola’s (KO) move to bring back its namesake cola in 1985, months after replacing it with the sweeter “New Coke.” The publication’s editor Duane Stanford said Pepsi made a “significant gamble” to a large, cash-generating brand with the new diet soda strategy that ultimately didn’t work out as planned.

“PepsiCo’s revised diet cola strategy is intended to serve older consumers who are used to the previous formula, younger consumers
who want to avoid aspartame, and still others who don’t care but want bolder diet colas with more functional attributes,” Stanford wrote.

Why did Pepsi make the change to Diet Pepsi in the first place? Diet soda sales have stumbled in recent years, with executives admitting that aspartame has fallen out of favor with some consumers amid concerns about potential health risks. Beverage companies have caught on that some consumers are just completely unwilling to consume anything with the sweetener, and that inspired Pepsi to make a big change.

But the big formula change might have been too drastic. Fortune earlier this month asked if Pepsi should bring back the old Diet Pepsi recipe, after a Wall Street Journal story speculated a pivot could occur for Pepsi’s U.S. soda portfolio as sales declines for the new Diet Pepsi were particularly poor.

Though Pepsi has a lot of big brands among the company’s soda, Frito-Lay and Quaker Foods divisions, the success of Diet Pepsi is also important. Amid a declining broader soda industry, Diet Pepsi is badly lagging. While the brand is the 7th-largest brand in the U.S., volume dropped 10.6% in the first quarter of this year, Beverage Digest reported, far worse than Diet Coke’s 5.7% decline and Diet Mountain Dew’s 4.4% drop.