Supermarket bans aspartame from own-label products, and a food fight is brewing…

It might be twee and a bit naïve, but I recommend that eating a diet found as close as possible to what is found in nature makes good sense. This means, of course, avoiding, when we can, substances are not to be found naturally in the food chain. Perhaps rather predictably, the science supports this notion. For instance, the much-reviled but naturally occurring ‘saturated’ fat found in, say, red meat and eggs has no strong links with disease, while industrially produced ‘trans’ fats do.

So, when the food industry introduces a novel food or food ingredient into our diet I admit I generally come at it from a sceptical perspective. This is the case when all the ingredient is doing is making a food a bit bluer or redder or extending it’s shelf-life or palatability. However, I become even more suspicious when claims are made that some new-fangled foodstuff is better for us than, perhaps, something that we’ve had in our diet forever. Let us not forget, for instance, that the partially hydrogenated fats from which industrially produced trans fats are derived were originally sold to us as a healthy alternative to saturated fat (and what a load of rubbish that turned out to be).

Another example of where we have been sold a bit of a dummy by the food industry concerns artificial sweeteners. In the past I have attempted to highlight the science which shows that artificial sweeteners have considerable potential to cause harm, and at the same time, do not appear to have any obvious benefits for health. If you want more specifics on this, you can get some here, here and here.

These particular posts have focused mainly on the potential hazards of the artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet, Canderel, Equal)). One of the reasons I’ve focused so much on aspartame is that most of the published research on artificial sweeteners has focused on this particular substance. There are now hundreds of studies which have focused on the safety of substance. The manufacturers use this science in an attempt to convince us that aspartame is safe.

Yet, right from the beginning, there has been plenty of evidence that aspartame has the capacity to cause harm. And there is, as I’ve highlighted before, evidence of considerable bias in this area: while industry funded research invariably finds in favour of aspartame, independently-funded work almost always comes to the opposite conclusion. These things, and the fact that anecdotal reports of aspartame toxicity are easy to find has meant that aspartame continues to be viewed with suspicion by many.

It seems that at long, long last, this scepticism in the general public has filtered through to food retailers. Generally speaking, supermarket chains give customers what they want. There has been growing awareness quite recently here in the UK that a lot of food has a lot of shit in it. As a result, many supermarkets have gone about formulating foods that are devoid of commonly-recognised baddies such as saturated fat (sigh), salt, added sugar and artificial additives. However, I was interested to read that here in the UK, the Walmart-owned supermarket chain Asda has explicitly named aspartame is a list of ‘nasties’ it has set about removing from it’s ‘Good for You’ range of foods.

Such a move was not going to go unnoticed by aspartame’s manufacturers, of course. It turns out the Ajinomoto, the Japanese company that makes aspartame, has served a writ in London against Asda, and is suing on the basis that Asda has suggested that aspartame is unhealthy and is something that consumers concerned for their health should avoid.

An Ajinomoto spokesperson is quoted as saying: ‘This is a UK initiative and a relatively cynical one,’ adding: ‘It doesn’t reflect concerns at a consumer level – it is just bandwagoning.’ However, an Asda spokesperson maintains that: ‘We have removed some of the ingredients our customers tell us they don’t want in their food. That includes aspartame’.

Sp, what we have here is an example of where what seems to be well guided consumer pressure has led to a major supermarket chain to take action over a very dubious food ingredient indeed. This, I think, is an example of people power, and I am, personally, hugely enthusiastic about this turn of events.

Now that a writ has been served, my hope is that Asda does not capitulate and ‘do a deal’ with Ajinomoto. Ajinomoto’s lawyers are notorious aggressive (I’ve had personal experience of this myself as I’ve had exchanges with over what I believe to be factually correct and utterly defensible comments in the Observer magazine some years ago). However, now that a writ has been served, my suspicion is any attempts for a deal to be done have failed. So, it looks as though we’re heading for a full-blown battle.

As this plays out, it might be that Asda’s lawyers may want to draw attention to aspartame’s chequered political history, the fact that this substance has been continually mired in controversy, and that there is (whatever its manufacturer mantains) more than enough evidence to view this substance with considerable suspicion. It might be, therefore, that this legal action will only serve to sow further seeds of doubt about the safety and legitimacy of aspartame. While Ajinomoto obviously feels the need to defend its product and no doubt will instruct its lawyers to give Asda both barrels, in mounting this action it may well end shooting itself in the foot.

9 Responses to Supermarket bans aspartame from own-label products, and a food fight is brewing…

  1. missbossy 7 May 2008 at 5:57 am #

    I thought Aspartame was a Monsanto product. I didn’t realise that Ajinomoto owns Aspartame in the UK. That’s quite apt given their other popular neurotoxin: MSG.

    Here in Asia, MSG is commonly referred to as Ajinomoto.

  2. June Ray 8 May 2008 at 4:23 pm #

    Dr. Briffa is not the least bit “naive.”

    Take a look at this private study on aspartame.

    Thanks for letting me post.

  3. Tanya Jackson 11 May 2008 at 10:12 pm #

    June ” I think that should have been , just so people can see it.

    Unfortunately, although I am strongly against aspartame and hope Ajinomoto get their arses kicked, I have to point out that the study at the website above is slightly flawed in that tumours are quite common in female rats, particularly black-hooded ones. I know this because I had a rat who developed one of that size and had to be put down ” and I certainly wasn’t feeding her diet coke. I was nine years old and had a book about rats. I fed her fresh fruit and vegetables every day as well as her normal food. The tumour began to appear when she was about four years old, so she was already quite elderly in rodent terms. I was devastated but the vet informed me there was nothing else we could have done.

    Please don’t let that take the sting out of the point about aspartame ” the evidence is all there. Just elsewhere.


  4. Tiggy 12 May 2008 at 2:54 am #

    You have to take the extraneous ‘e’ out of June’s link for it to work.

    At first I thought the writer was experimenting on his pet hamsters!

  5. Alexandra 14 May 2008 at 12:07 pm #

    The state of New Mexico was talking about banning aspartame for a while…I’m not sure what became of that (I live in Ohio).

    For years I was on one antidepressant or another. For whatever reason I decided to stop drinking diet pop and I found that when I cut out the aspartame, I didn’t need medication! I’ve been drug-free (haha) for five or six years now!

    What’s needed is education–let people know, hey, this stuff is poison. When someone tells me they’re depressed, the first question I ask them, “Are you drinking diet pop?” Instead of blowing money on shrinks and pills, all a lot of people would have to do is stop consuming aspartame!

  6. Dr John Briffa 14 May 2008 at 9:51 pm #

    Today I saw a newspaper advert for EyeQ supplement (omega-3) which specifically states:

    ‘no hydrogenated fat’
    ‘no aspartame’
    ‘no artificial colours’

    Seems like this idea of listing aspartame as a ‘nasty’ on food labels is catching on. And not before time, I reckon.

  7. Alexandra 15 May 2008 at 2:05 am #

    One thing you have to watch out for here: Some companies believe that zero is equal to anything less than one.

    They put “0 grams trans fat” on the label, yet when you actually read the ingredients, they mean maybe half a gram of hydrogenated oil per serving.

    Half is not zero. Zero is zero. Pretty sneaky. My advice to anyone is actually read the ingredient list. And if it’s a mile long you probably don’t want it!

  8. JerryRansom 7 January 2009 at 5:17 pm #

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  9. madbomberjones 20 February 2010 at 10:46 am #

    I dont know what you are all worried about. I think aspartame is a great product!!!

    Its the best Ant Poison on the planet. Well that was what is was originally intended to be.

    I think the reason one reader thought Aspartame was a Monsanto product, is becuase it originally was. To get it passed by the FDA for human poisoning (whoops I meant consumption) Donald “Defence Secretary” Rumsfeld who is also involved in Searle a Monsanto company, pretty much had to retire the original and very concerned FDA board members, and replace them with money mad fascists, to get this product passed for human consumption.

    Agent Orange anyone?

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