Ajinomoto sells aspartame under the AminoSweet trademark

Ajinomoto sells aspartame under the AminoSweet trademark

Ajinomoto has defended aspartame, the artificial sweetener of which the Japan-based food group is the largest supplier, and questioned the potential of natural sweetener stevia.

Critics have long claimed that aspartame is associated with numerous health risks. Retailers, including the UK's Marks and Spencer and South Africa's Woolworths Holdings, have removed aspartame from their own-label lines in recent years.

Meanwhile, Asda, the UK arm of Wal-Mart, has been embroiled in a three-year legal dispute with Ajinomoto over the artificial sweetener. In 2007, Ajinomoto sued Asda after the retailer publicised a "no-hidden nasties" guarantee to promote its removal of artificial colours and flavours from its own-brand food and soft drinks.

Last year, a UK court dismissed Ajinomoto's lawsuit that sought to stop Asda describing aspartame as a "nasty".

However, this June, the ingredients firm said an appeal "effectively reversed" the earlier ruling, which enabled the company to pursue its case to "protect the reputation of aspartame".

Speaking to just-food at the SIAL food-industry exhibition in Paris, Alain Vrillon, executive deputy president of Ajinomoto's European business, said it was a challenge to defend aspartame against its critics but insisted the ingredient was safe.

"[The criticism] is not always justified," Vrillon said. "It's difficult to combat against that. We have all the data that everyone wants to look at. Already EFSA and the FDA have confidence." However, he added: "We know that some people, whatever we say, will think they are right."

The controversy has added to concerns over artificial sweeteners and fed growing interest in natural ingredients, including stevia, which comes from a plant native to South America.

Stevia has been used in food and drink products sold markets in Asia and South America for decades but industry recognition of the ingredient has grown since the FDA cleared its use in the US in 2008. The food and drinks sector is awaiting full EU clearance, although France has given its approval under a rule that allows a member state to give a temporary, two-year green light to an ingredient.

Stevia suppliers including PureCircle have been busy investing in R&D and distribution, including ventures with sugar processors to create and market stevia products for the US and in preparation for the potential opening of the EU market.

Meanwhile, food ingredients giants like Cargill have also been launching stevia-based products and investing in a category that remains small when compared to global sweetener sales. According to research from Leatherhead International, aspartame sales stood at US$345m in 2009, or 27% of the global market for intense sweeteners. Stevia sales were $79m, or 6% of the market.

Ajinomoto's Vrillon claimed stevia would attract demand in parts of the market but questioned the merits of the sweetener on taste and cost.

"Just taste it, compare and you will understand," Vrillon said. ""You maybe find a market but it cannot appeal to everything. Cost-wise, I'm not sure but it's quite expensive."

Vrillon added: "It's a product that will find its way. People are still learning. The concept is interesting but then you have to come to the reality."

The Ajinomoto executive was at SIAL to help promote the company as a supplier to the retail sector. In Europe, Ajinomoto's business is dominated by the industrial channel to which it sells products like aspartame and glumatic acid.

Vrillon said Ajinomoto was targeting Japanese and Chinese food retail stores. "We want to grow that and make the brand as well known as it is in Asia," he said. "This is long term but we need to start somewhere. Ethnic food is probably the strongest, especially in the UK. They are already aware."