Sweet as Saccharin

Old German saccharin sachets. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

They seem indispensable now, those small paper packets found in restaurants around the world. These ubiquitous artificial sweeteners—the blue Equal, the yellow Splenda, and the pink Sweet’N Low—owe their existence to chemistry. We may not think of them as single-serving chemicals, but artificial sweeteners came out of chemistry labs over a century ago. The great-grandfather of them all, the former king, is benzoic sulphinide, commonly known as saccharin.

Saccharin emerged from a Johns Hopkins chemistry lab managed by Ira Remsen. In 1877 Remsen had opened his lab to Constantin Fahlberg, a Russian chemist who had come to Baltimore to offer scientific testimony in a court case. Welcomed by Remsen and his fellow researchers, Fahlberg took up their study of coal-tar derivatives.

One day in June 1878, after working in the lab, Fahlberg sat down to dinner and made a remarkable discovery. “Before going home for the evening I had washed my hands thoroughly. I was very surprised at dinner when my hands tasted sweet as I put some bread in my mouth,” he later recalled. “I ran back to the laboratory and tasted all the beakers, vials, and dishes which stood on my worktable until I finally found the taste in the contents of one, which seemed strikingly sweet.” In fact it was 300 times sweeter than sugar, as Remsen and Fahlberg noted in their joint article describing two methods of benzoic sulphinide synthesis.

The era of artificial sweeteners had dawned. Soon after leaving Remsen’s lab in 1884, Fahlberg patented a new, cheaper method for producing benzoic sulphinide in bulk. He also rechristened it “Fahlberg’s saccharin”—a play on the Latin saccharum, meaning sugar.

Fahlberg had a brand-name success. Produced in his New York City lab and sold in pill and powder form, saccharin’s popularity grew quickly. Doctors prescribed it to treat headaches, nausea, and corpulence. Canners used it as a preservative; diabetics used it as a substitute sweetener.

With rising use came greater scrutiny. Was saccharin safe? Fahlberg had rather crude evidence: in 1882 he’d consumed 10 grams of the chemical. He experienced no ill effects after a day, and nearly the entire dose passed unmetabolized into his urine. Fahlberg continued to tout his saccharin as a chemical wonder.

By the early 1900s Americans had become more wary of the food industry. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, assigning regulation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry. Two years later the bureau’s head chemist, Harvey Washington Wiley, proposed the first saccharin ban, taking his case straight to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Wiley 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 using saccharin instead of sugar saved him thousands of dollars. Roosevelt settled the dispute:  “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot. Dr. Rixey gives it to me every day.” The president’s personal experience decided the case.

Saccharin’s popularity fluctuated over the next few decades. War shortages raised the price of sugar, and people turned to cheaper saccharin. But they always came back to sugar. After World War II, though, fundamental changes made saccharin a bigger part of the American diet. Processed food became a growth industry, with many companies relying on saccharin. Still, the debate over safety never really went away. In the face of contradictory or inconclusive scientific evidence many consumers followed their desire for a no-consequences sweetener. 

But by 1958 Congress decided to revisit earlier food-industry legislation. They passed the Food Additives Amendment, which contained a seemingly uncontroversial clause prohibiting the use of cancer-causing substances in food. That same year the Cumberland Packing Corporation introduced Sweet ’N Low, the first table-side artificial sweetener. The distinctive pink packets contained a mixture of saccharin and cyclamate, which blunted saccharin’s bitter aftertaste. Sweet ’N Low arguably tasted more like real sugar, which brought artificial sweeteners into diners and coffee shops.

Meanwhile, the appeal of artificial sweeteners increased among weight-conscious consumers. Between 1963 and 1967 artificially sweetened soft drinks nearly tripled their market share, growing to over 10% of the soda market.

Two 1968 studies cast a pall over artificial sweeteners and, by linking cyclamates to bladder cancer, virtually demanded action from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Regulators banned cyclamates the following year. But scientists soon found a similar link between bladder cancer and saccharin. A ban seemed likely.  

With their future in doubt saccharin producers rallied the public to their cause. Marvin Eisenstadt, president of Cumberland Packing, went on TV and radio to argue his case. He denied the scientific validity of animal testing and declared access to saccharin a consumer right. His two-page New York Times ad declared a possible ban another example of “BIG GOVERNMENT” and encouraged readers to write their congressmen.

The debate over a saccharin ban had become a public-relations battle. Senator Ted Kennedy stepped in with a compromise: the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act, 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.

Consumers voted with their dollars, turning artificial sweeteners into a $1.5 billion market. Saccharin lost its warning label only in 2000, but in the meantime the threat of a saccharin ban had opened the door to new sweeteners: aspartame, 200 times sweeter than sugar; sucralose, 600 times sweeter; and neotame—a whopping 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter. Questions of safety have largely been settled, at least among consumers eager to enjoy the sweet life.

Jesse Hicks has taught in the Science, Technology, and Society program at Pennsylvania State University.