Asda wins fight over 'nasty' sweetener

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The Independent Online

Asda today won its court battle with a Japanese food company which sued the supermarket chain for calling the artificial sweetener aspartame "nasty".

Ajinomoto Sweeteners, a leading producer of aspartame, took action after Asda announced in 2007 that it would become the first supermarket in Britain to remove artificial colours and flavours from its own brand labels.

In publicity for its "Good for you" range, Asda promised: "No hidden nasties - no artificial colours or flavours, no aspartame and no hydrogenated fats".

Ajinomoto accused Asda at the High Court in London of malicious falsehood and said it was trying to protect the reputation of its products. The firm has a 45 per cent share of the European aspartame market.

But today Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the words complained of - on food packaging and a cola drink - did not mean that aspartame was potentially harmful or unhealthy.

He said the publicity was trying to convey the message "if you the customer think that aspartame may be bad for you, or unpleasant to taste or consume, then this product is for you".

The judge said Ajinomoto had claimed that the words meant that aspartame is either an especially or potentially harmful and unhealthy sweetener and one which consumers concerned with their health would do well to avoid.

"The claimant claims that if such statements continue to be made by Asda, then shoppers will be scared of buying products containing aspartame and the claimant will lose sales."

Mr Justice Tugendhat said the case was not just about profits and there was a public interest involved.

"If aspartame is safe, which I have no reason to doubt, then it would be a loss to the public, and deprive them of freedom of choice, if it were to become stigmatised for no good reason."

He said the adjective "nasty" could mean anything from "unpleasant" to "dangerous" and coupling the word "Good for you" and "nasty" was inviting approval of products which did not contain aspartame and disapproval of those that did.

"No reasonable reader could understand the words as a statement by Asda that all artificial colours and flavours are especially or actually harmful or unhealthy."

He entered judgment for Asda but it will not be enforced for three weeks to give Ajinomoto time to consider an appeal.

In a statement, Asda welcomed the ruling and renewed a call for other manufacturers and retailers to remove artificial additives from food and soft drinks.

Darren Blackhurst, Asda's chief merchandising officer, said: "Naturally, this is a sweet victory. We're in the business of listening to our customers and they've told us loud and clear that they don't want unnecessary, artificial additives in their food.

"That's why we introduced our 'no nasties' guarantee to give our customers 100 per cent confidence they can buy any of our own-label food or soft drink products knowing that they're free from all artificial colours and flavours, aspartame and hydrogenated vegetable oils.

"Put simply, we've got the cleanest own-label products in Britain and today's ruling means we can carry on telling our customers that.

"Now we've proved it can be done, there's no excuse for other retailers and manufacturers not to follow our lead."