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The report claims low or zero-sugar soft drinks – like Diet Coke – are cheaper to produce

Soft drinks suppliers are being urged to switch production entirely to diet drinks to combat obesity - and ultimately improve their profits.

A new report, ‘Making the Healthy Choice the Cheaper Choice’, claims that suppliers and retailers are currently making significantly higher profits on diet soft drinks than on regular versions, which are sold at the same price.

The study, compiled by four leading public health academics, argues that diet versions are cheaper because sweeteners such as aspartame, which was given the all-clear by the European Food Safety Authority last week, cost less than the sugars used in regular soft drinks.

Former professor of nutrition policy for London Metropolitan University Jack Winkler, along with three peers from the University of Ottawa, studied the production costs for a number of leading soft drinks brands in the UK and US.

They concluded that by using sweeteners instead of sugars, UK cola producers spent almost 7p less on the production of a two-litre bottle of diet cola compared with regular versions.

“Currently, all savings on the costs of sugar-free drinks are converted into extra profit,” said the report. “In Britain, almost 1.6 billion litres of sugar-free cola were sold in 2012, so companies made £52m additional income from elevated prices on these drinks.”

The report suggested the industry could make a further £182m profit a year if all drinks were sugar-free.

“This is not a fantasy,” it argued. “Over recent decades, without controversy, in most countries, chewing gums have been reformulated from sugared products almost entirely to sugar-free.”

“But companies continue to push lower-margin sugared drinks. They stimulate obesity, exploit customers, and reduce profits, all at the same time. This is a lose-lose-lose strategy.”

However the British Soft Drinks Association rejected the findings. “This report ignores the impact of various factors on prices including retailer costs and the costs associated with production, notably in product development,” claimed director general Gavin Partington.

“Manufacturers have been taking steps to reduce the calorie content of their drinks over many years more than 60% of drinks now contain no added sugar. In addition, leading producers and retailers are now signed up to the Responsibility Deal to reduce sugar even more, and this has led to a significant increase in their marketing expenditure on low and zero-calorie drinks.”