Major UK Grocery Chain
Bans Aspartame Over
Brain Tumor Concerns
By Dominic Rushe
The Sunday Times (London)
ICELAND, the grocer, will announce this week that it is banning aspartame, the artificial sweetener better known as NutraSweet, from its own-label foods.
The move follows growing concern among consumers about a possible link between the sweetener and brain tumours. Aspartame is consumed by 250m people worldwide and has been used in low-calorie food and drinks such as Diet Coke for 20 years.
But in recent years there have been increasing fears about possible health risks. The compound has been linked to multiple sclerosis and even Gulf war syndrome.
These worries, spread on the internet, are hotly disputed by NutraSweet's owner, Monsanto, the GM (genetically modified) food giant.
Iceland will become the first national grocers' chain to impose a ban and the move will be closely watched by its larger rivals. Iceland is trying to reposition itself as a "green" grocer and has already banned other artificial colours and flavourings from its own goods.
Malcolm Walker, Iceland's chairman, was the first grocer to ban GM foods and coined the term "Frankenstein foods". The move will spark a full- scale row between the grocery chain and Monsanto.
A NutraSweet spokeswoman said: "Iceland is spreading alarm when it should be reassuring customers. The web has become a real problem [and ] there is a lot of misinformation about."
An Iceland executive said that the company will tell staff tomorrow that it will no longer supply food with aspartame under its own label and will be switching to other artificial sweeteners. The company will continue to sell branded products that contain NutraSweet such as Diet Coke.
The grocer's executives recently held talks with the International Sweeteners Association, which represents the multi-billion-pound industry. But despite being given assurances that NutraSweet was perfectly safe, Iceland decided to impose a ban.
King's College, London, is conducting a three-year study to establish whether there is a link between aspartame and brain tumours. Reports in America have found conflicting evidence of a link. There, 20 billion cans of soft drink are consumed each year, most containing NutraSweet.
Bill Wadsworth, Iceland's technical director,said a full-scale ban was being considered. "We are taking the matter seriously because of the weight of customer pressure we are coming under."
Monsanto is in the process of selling its sweetener division. Protests from consumers and environmental groups in Europe - many debating the issue on the internet - have hurt the company's growth prospects and its stock market value has plummeted.
Wadsworth said: "Clearly the internet is playing a major role bringing this debate to public attention."