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Chavez bans Coke Zero because of 'health risk'

Hugo Chavez, the anti-US President of Venezuela, has ordered Coca-Cola to withdraw its Coke Zero drink from the country, citing unspecified dangers to health.

The government's order follows a wave of nationalisations and increased scrutiny of businesses in South America's top oil exporter. The Health Minister, Jesus Mantilla, said the zero-calorie Coke Zero should no longer be sold and stocks of the drink must be removed from store shelves while the government investigates its ingredients.

"The product should be withdrawn from circulation to preserve the health of Venezuelans," the minister said in comments reported by the government's news agency.

Coca-Cola said Coke Zero contained no harmful ingredients but that it would stop production and remove the product from shelves during the investigation. "Coca-Cola Zero is made under the highest quality standards around the world and meets the sanitary requirements demanded by the laws of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," the company said in a joint statement with its local bottling firm.

Despite Mr Chavez's anti-capitalist policies and rhetoric against consumerism, oil-exporting Venezuela remains one of Latin America's most Americanised cultures, with US fast-food chains, shopping malls and baseball all highly popular.

Mr Mantilla did not say what health risks Coke Zero, which contains artificial sweeteners, posed to the population. Coke Zero was launched in Venezuela in April and Coca-Cola Femsa, the Mexico-based company that bottles Coke products in South America, said at the time that it aimed to increase its market share for low-calorie drinks by 200 per cent.