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What can we learn from General Mills' move to ditch aspartame in Yoplait Light?

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By Elaine Watson+

26-Jun-2014
Last updated on 18-Jul-2014 at 21:18 GMT

General Mills: 'After hearing requests to take out aspartame, the brand is taking action.'
General Mills: 'After hearing requests to take out aspartame, the brand is taking action.'

If artificial sweeteners have an image problem, then General Mills’ move to replace one artificial sweetener (aspartame) with another (sucralose) in its Yoplait Light yogurts might seem like an odd move.

General Mills has not gone into detail abut what consumers were saying about aspartame, but says in a blog post  that “after hearing requests to take out aspartame, the brand is taking action”.

It also noted that sucralose - which has had its own fair share of negative PR in recent years - “is the best option to replace aspartame” based on consumer taste tests and is “the only low-calorie sweetener that’s made from sugar”.

After hearing requests to take out aspartame, the brand is taking action

This isn’t about safety. Both sucralose and aspartame have been exhaustively tested and deemed safe by all major scientific and regulatory bodies, but as the GMO debate has highlighted, in the world of food marketing, perception is everything.

Which has got some branding and marketing experts wondering why - if the whole reason behind the change is perception - General Mills didn’t make a bolder move and replace aspartame with natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit (as Chobani has done with its Simply 100 line).

Datamonitor: This could end up boomeranging on General Mills

The fact it opted for sucralose may suggest that “high intensity sweetener options like stevia and monk fruit may not quite be ready for prime time” in every application, speculated Datamonitor innovation insights director Tom Vierhile.

Tom Vierhile, Datamonitor: "This move could end up boomeranging on General Mills if it stirs up consumers that would like the company remove all artificial sweeteners from its calorie reduced yogurts."

As for the decision to swop one artificial sweetener for another, he told FoodNavigator-USA it was potentially risky: “It will be interesting to see what the reaction to this reformulation is. 

“By claiming Yoplait Light is ‘aspartame free’, General Mills is implying that aspartame is inferior to other low calorie sweeteners, and maybe even less healthful. The declaration opens the door to greater scrutiny to the use of specific sweeteners for the brand, and could end up boomeranging on General Mills if it stirs up consumers that would like the company remove all artificial sweeteners from its calorie reduced yogurts, but we’ll have to see about that.”

Are some artificial sweeteners seen as more artificial than others?

As to whether some artificial sweeteners are seen as more 'artificial' than others, he said:  “This is an area of intense controversy and there seems to be a gap between perception and reality.  Perhaps because it is an older sweetener that has been on the market longer, aspartame may have attracted more of a negative health perception than sucralose. 

“Aspartame may be seen as being more ‘artificial’ than sucralose since the latter is at least chemically connected to sugar.  But even the maker of Splenda-brand sucralose sweetener admits that the product is “not natural,” though it is “made from a process that starts with sugar.”

Jean Ban, executive vice president at branding and marketing agency CBD Marketing, added: "When a major brand like Yoplait is practically screaming “Now Aspartame FREE” and linking that to the claim “Better Than Ever!”  it’s even more bad news for an ingredient already awash in negative press."

Ajinomoto VP on winning hearts and minds over aspartame: I don’t think it’s a losing battle

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the IFT show in New Orleans earlier this week (click HERE ) aspartame maker Ajinomoto claimed that sales of aspartame were still growing, despite the lackluster growth in diet cola and gum, two key application areas.

Dr Ihab Bishay from Ajinomoto at the IFT show

Asked for his take on the relentless artificial sweetener-bashing in social media and elsewhere, Dr Ihab Bishay, senior director, business development and application innovation at Ajinomoto North America, told FoodNavigator-USA that Ajinomoto had been working with major customers to address misconceptions about aspartame.

While there is no simple solution beyond being transparent about what aspartame is, why it is beneficial, and why consumers can be confident it is safe, he said, “I don’t think it’s a losing battle.”

Aspartame will be removed from all sizes and flavors of Yoplait Light by the end of summer.  The new cups will say ‘Now no aspartame’ and still have around 90 calories.  

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