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.

Remsen and Fahlberg published a joint article describing two methods of saccharin synthesis in February 1879. Though they specifically noted its taste—“even sweeter than cane sugar”—neither discoverer seemed interested in its commercial potential.

At least not initially. In 1884, after he had left Remsen’s lab and without notifying his codiscoverer, Fahlberg applied for German and American patents on a new method for producing saccharin more cheaply and in greater quantities. Remsen had long disdained industrial chemistry, considering himself a man of pure science. In 1886, though, Fahlberg filed another set of patents, claiming to be the sole discoverer of “Fahlberg’s saccharin.” Remsen, who wanted recognition rather than money, immediately protested to the chemistry community.

With his newly patented production method Fahlberg set up shop in New York City, where he and one employee produced five kilograms of saccharin a day for use as a drink additive. Offered in pill and powder form, saccharin’s popularity grew quickly. Doctors began to prescribe it to treat headaches, nausea, and corpulence. (Like sugar before it, saccharin became an all-purpose curative.) Canners used it as a preservative; diabetics used it to sweeten coffee or tea.

As saccharin use rose, consumers, regulators, and competitors began to question its supposed harmlessness. Fahlberg had tested saccharin in late 1882. After consuming 10 grams of the chemical, he waited 24 hours and experienced no adverse reactions. In fact, his body barely responded: almost the entire dose passed unmetabolized into his urine.

But by 1906, in response to such food-industry horror stories as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Americans demanded government intervention. Thus Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first attempt to regulate the nation’s food supply.

Enforcement of the new law fell to the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry and its head chemist, Harvey Washington Wiley. He had long crusaded to rein in what he saw as an out-of-control food industry. In 1908 Wiley proposed the first saccharin ban, taking his case straight to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Wiley’s stature as a chemist and sugar expert should have carried the day. In his meeting with Roosevelt he argued that saccharin, as a coal-tar derivative, couldn’t possibly be fit for human consumption—though at this point the scientific evidence remained inconclusive. A factory owner responded that his company had saved thousands of dollars by replacing sugar with saccharin. Wiley countered that saccharin threatened the health of everyone who consumed it. Roosevelt gruffly settled the matter, saying, “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot. Dr. Rixey gives it to me every day.” Regulatory science, in the form of Wiley, had collided with industrial market priorities; the anecdotal evidence of a single influential consumer —President Roosevelt, whose personal physician had prescribed saccharin to help his patient slim down—had trumped both.

In the years to come this pattern would repeat itself. Uncertain science provoked regulatory action—dismaying major segments of industry and the public, while invigorating those who saw regulators as protectors of the public welfare. Industry and regulators each had their own scientists and often their own incompatible sets of scientific evidence. The notion of scientific consensus began to break down as questions of safety became more complicated; the relationship between industry and regulators grew antagonistic as medical evidence became less conclusive and more open to interpretation. With scientific consensus on safety issues no longer tenable, regulations would be increasingly made in public, often by the public—those consumers who considered themselves just as capable of interpreting the evidence as the so-called experts. For saccharin this regulation by the public reached its apogee in the 1970s, but the pattern had established itself as early as 1908.