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.

In the week after the saccharin ban went into effect in 1977, Congress received more than a million letters. Marvin Eisenstadt and other public relations–savvy producers had turned the saccharin debate into a PR operation, and the public had responded. The Delaney Clause, as the FDA interpreted it, required a ban on any known carcinogen in the food supply. But the original legislation failed to account for the complexity of scientific data. The clause’s premise of scientific consensus based on objective evidence and shared expertise no longer applied to the real world, if it ever had. Scientists couldn’t agree on fundamental questions: What is a carcinogen? What daily dosage of a chemical might be reasonable for testing toxicity? Did the elevated risk of cancer in rats translate to an elevated risk in humans? Health science couldn’t yet answer those questions definitively. But in the absence of incontrovertible scientific evidence, Marvin Eisenstadt could frame the debate as average citizens versus an encroaching big government.

The FDA understood the weakness of the existing laws and breathed a sigh of relief when, a week after the ban, Senator Ted Kennedy of the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research moved to forestall the ban. The Saccharin Study and Labeling Act passed that year, declaring that all saccharin products would carry a warning label. It also imposed a two-year moratorium on any government action to remove saccharin from the market. More studies were needed, according to Congress.

In response, Sweet’N Low sales skyrocketed. Those sales included longtime buyers stocking up in case of a ban, but the free publicity also brought in new customers. By 1979, 44 million Americans used saccharin daily. Consumers voted with their dollars.

Congress renewed the moratorium every two years until 2000, when a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) study declared the earlier research invalid. The high dosages of saccharin given to the rats were a poor analog for human consumption, as rat digestion works differently from that of humans. The NIEHS recommended that Congress repeal the Labeling Act, officially declaring saccharin safe for human consumption.

Finally, though, it wasn’t government regulation that toppled saccharin from its throne as king of the artificial sweeteners—at least not directly. The threat of a saccharin ban led producers to research alternatives. While saccharin—300 times sweeter than sugar—languished in the shadow of a potential ban, a new generation of artificial sweeteners flourished. In 1965 aspartame, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar, was discovered; in 1976 sucralose—600 times sweeter; and in 2002 neotame—7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. Today, saccharin, once the undisputed king of artificial sweeteners, lags behind its newer counterparts, replaced by the next sweetest thing.

Jesse Hicks teaches in the Science, Technology, and Society program at The Pennsylvania State University.