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.

Partly in response to growing unease among regulators and the public, Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment in 1958. In preparing its legislation Congress heard testimony from members of the scientific community. For the first time in connection with food additives, scientists used the c-word: cancer. Representative James J. Delaney, a Democrat from New York, pushed hard for the addition of language specifically outlawing carcinogens. In its final form the “Delaney Clause” required the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of carcinogenic substances in food. Seemingly uncontroversial at the time—who would support adding cancer-causing agents to food?—it later proved contentious.

Legislators had disastrously underestimated the data necessary to definitively declare a substance carcinogenic.

The same year, the Cumberland Packing Corporation introduced Sweet’N Low, a mixture of saccharin and cyclamate, another artificial sweetener. The two chemicals balanced each other, with cyclamate blunting the bitter aftertaste of saccharin. Sweet’N Low arguably tasted more like real sugar, and those little pink packets brought artificial sweeteners into diners and coffee shops. Meanwhile, the use of artificial sweeteners continued to increase among weight-conscious consumers. Between 1963 and 1967 artificially sweetened soft drinks (Coca-Cola’s Tab, for example) nearly tripled their market share, growing to over 10% of the soda market.

In 1882 Constantin Fahlberg had declared saccharin harmless because he suffered no adverse effects 24 hours after taking a single dose. Similarly, Harvey Washington Wiley’s turn-of-the-century “poison squads” had declared a substance safe if the tester—a human guinea pig—remained healthy after ingestion. But post–World War II health science had begun investigating subtler, long-term effects. Research methodology had changed accordingly: studies observed a longer span of time, for example, and tried to control for a wider range of variables. Researchers shifted away from unstructured human testing toward animal testing that included control groups. Such research produced more and better data but increased complexity. No longer could a substance be labeled simply “poison” or “not poison.” The results of these sophisticated tests demanded sophisticated interpretation.

In the late 1960s three trends converged: increasing government regulation in the food-processing industry, the rise of artificial sweeteners, and the growing complexity and sophistication of health science. One of the first results of this convergence was the ban on cyclamate. Two 1968 studies linked the chemical to bladder cancer. The FDA cited the Delaney Clause in recommending a ban, which was enacted the following year. That left only one artificial sweetener on the market: saccharin. In 1970 oncologists at the University of Wisconsin Medical School published the results of a clinical study showing a higher instance of bladder cancer among rats who consumed saccharin daily. Subsequent tests seemed to support the initial results, and in 1972 the FDA removed saccharin from the list of food additives “generally recognized as safe.” Peter B. Hutt, chief legal counsel for the FDA, stated that, “If it causes cancer—whether it’s 875 bottles a day or 11—it’s going off the market.”

Saccharin producers and commercial consumers recognized the FDA’s move as a precursor to an outright ban. Large chemical companies—Monsanto, Sherwin-Williams, and Lakeway Chemicals—began assembling their own evidence to oppose prohibition. Soda companies expected a painful financial hit, as did makers of diet food. But they also knew the process could take years, as the FDA ordered new tests, analyzed the data, and—crucially—responded to public and political pressure.

By 1977 a saccharin ban looked likely. The Cumberland Packing Corporation, which had presciently reformulated Sweet’N Low in the shadow of the cyclamate ban, vowed to fight any regulation. Marvin Eisenstadt, the president of the company, appeared on television and radio to argue his case. He denied the scientific validity of animal testing and declared access to saccharin a consumer right. He helped draft a two-page ad from the Calorie Control Council, the industry group he headed. The ad appeared in the New York Times explaining “why the proposed ban on saccharin is leaving a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.” The ad described the ban as “another example of BIG GOVERNMENT” and recommended action. “Fortunately, we can all conduct our own experiment in this matter. It’s called an experiment in democracy. . . . Write or call your congressman today and let him know how you feel about a ban on saccharin.”