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.

Saccharin suffered minor setbacks in the coming decades, but every time it emerged more popular than ever. As a check on Wiley’s growing power and at the request of industrialists, in 1910 President Roosevelt created the Referee Board of Consulting Scientific Experts. The board’s first task was to examine the effect of sodium benzoate and saccharin on human health. The board, chaired by Ira Remsen, declared saccharin harmless in small doses. The next year Wiley won a small victory. He argued that because of saccharin's ubiquity, average consumers would ingest more of the sweetener than allowed for by Remsen’s scientists. From July 1912 food regulations would treat saccharin as an “adulterant,” prohibiting its use in processed foods. Industry lawyers fought back, and regulators wavered. A March 1912 decision upheld the earlier ban but also declared the evidence for saccharin’s harmfulness as weak. Instead, it argued against replacing sugar with saccharin because the former possessed food value while the latter did not. Of course, this point made saccharin immensely popular for dieters since it provided sweetness without calories. The pattern continued with interest groups fighting over the definition and consequences of “incontrovertible scientific evidence.”

The ban on saccharin in processed food was the outcome of a bureaucratic stalemate between regulators and industry. No incontrovertible evidence proved saccharin harmful at regular doses. Both sides offered evidence to support their claims, and neither could agree on a common definition of “harmful.” Because no objective test existed, any experimental data was by definition controversial.

Whatever its scientific merit, the prohibition had little effect on public perception. Though saccharin couldn’t be used in processed food, it could be sold directly to consumers. When World War I caused a sugar shortage and consequent price spike, Monsanto, then the largest saccharin producer, took its case to the public in full-page ads, arguing that widespread use of saccharin could save the country millions of dollars. Price-conscious consumers responded, buying up saccharin tablets for 15 cents a box at local drugstores. When the war ended, saccharin use dipped as consumers returned to sugar. U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 provoked another sugar shortage, and saccharin returned as a sugar substitute. But post–World War II, changing American eating habits meant saccharin soon became more than just an alternative sweetener.

The Rise of Saccharin and Scientific Controversy

Had saccharin remained merely a sugar alternative, important only to a relatively small number of diabetics and weight watchers during peacetime, it probably would not have caught the eye of government regulators and scientists. In the aftermath of World War II, though, saccharin production remained high. Fundamental changes in the American diet meant fewer people prepared meals at home, relying instead on preprocessed food. Presweetened products, often containing inexpensive saccharin—the output of an increasingly large food-processing industry—alarmed nutritionists, regulators, and health officials. While saccharin consumption increased, the debate over its safety was never truly settled. Science, to the public, had issued too many contradictory or inconclusive opinions, so when the decision about saccharin fell to individuals, most responded to their desire for a no-consequences sweetener.

Others, like Harvey Washington Wiley before them, were skeptical. A belief in the inherent healthiness of “natural” food led some people to decry the increasing artificiality of the American diet. Avis DeVoto, a friend of Julia Child and an editor at Alfred Knopf, remained unimpressed by saccharin, especially by its increasing use in cookbooks. In 1957 she wrote, “Desserts, of which there is a fat section, are incredible—sweetened with saccharine [sic] and topped with imitation whipped cream! Fantastic! And I do believe a lot of people in this country eat just like that, stuffing themselves with faked materials in the fond belief that by substituting a chemical for God’s good food they can keep themselves slim while still eating hot breads and desserts and GUNK.” DeVoto despaired, but also perfectly captured saccharin’s appeal: sweetness without consequences.