The Pursuit of Sweet: A History of Saccharin

Sugar packets

Single-serve packets of sugar and sugar substitutes are now found in most restaurants across the United States. Image courtesy of istockphoto.

You see them in almost every restaurant: those small paper packets, blue, yellow, or pink, emblazoned Equal, Splenda, or Sweet’N Low. In a little over 50 years artificial sweeteners have become a ubiquitous part of the dining experience. Where diners once found a sugar bowl, they’re now more likely to find a multicolored collection of single-serving chemicals.

One compound blazed a trail for other artificial sweeteners: saccharin. Three hundred times sweeter than sugar, with no apparent side effects, it was touted to consumers as the gateway to a world of sweetness without consequences. Over time the saccharin story grew more complicated; while the substance remained unchanged, perceptions of it have undergone almost alchemical shifts. In its 130-year history saccharin has been a laboratory accident, a wonder drug, a dangerous carcinogen, and a consumer cause célèbre.

The story of saccharin’s rise, its long reign as king of the artificial sweeteners, and its eventual decline illustrates a central tension within the American consumer’s psyche. When a company claims its product improves on nature, many consumers happily declare the product an example of scientific progress. Equally powerful, though, is the inclination toward skepticism—a wary eye for “faster, better, more” claims. From the beginning consumers and regulators wondered whether saccharin was too good to be true, whether its sweetness could truly be harmless. That underlying fear has never completely gone away despite the widespread use of artificial sweeteners today. The story of saccharin is a story of chemistry outside the lab, where things get complicated.

Discovery and Commercialization: The Early Years of Saccharin   

Saccharin (C7H5NO3S) was discovered in 1878 in the Johns Hopkins University laboratory of Ira Remsen, a professor of chemistry. At age 21 Remsen had graduated with honors from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, earning an M.D. He soon abandoned his medical career to pursue chemistry, first at the University of Munich, then at the University of Göttingen, where he studied with Rudolph Fittig and began research on the oxidation of toluene isomers.

In Fittig’s lab Remsen also studied sulfobenzoic acids, eventually publishing 75 papers on these and related compounds, laying the groundwork for the discovery of benzoic sulfinide—saccharin. Remsen returned to the United States in 1876—bringing with him influential German ideas about chemistry education—and accepted a professorship at Johns Hopkins. There he continued his research on the oxidation of methylated sulfobenzoic acids and their amides.

In 1877 a Russian chemist named Constantin Fahlberg was hired by the H.W. Perot Import Firm in Baltimore. Fahlberg studied sugar, while H.W. Perot imported sugar. The company enlisted him to analyze a sugar shipment impounded by the U.S. government, which questioned its purity. H.W. Perot also hired Remsen, asking him to provide a laboratory for Fahlberg’s tests. After completing his analyses and while waiting to testify at trial, Fahlberg received Remsen’s permission to use the lab for his own research. Working alongside Remsen’s assistants, Fahlberg found the lab a friendly place. In early 1878 Remsen granted Fahlberg’s request to take part in the institute’s research.

One night that June, after a day of laboratory work, Fahlberg sat down to dinner. He picked up a roll with his hand and bit into a remarkably sweet crust. Fahlberg had literally brought his work home with him, having spilled an experimental compound over his hands earlier that day. He ran back to Remsen’s laboratory, where he tasted everything on his worktable—all the vials, beakers, and dishes he used for his experiments. Finally he found the source: an overboiled beaker in which o-sulfobenzoic acid had reacted with phosphorus (V) chloride and ammonia, producing benzoic sulfinide. Though Falhberg had previously synthesized the compound by another method, he had no reason to taste the result. Serendipity had provided him with the first commercially viable alternative to cane sugar.