Sickly Sweets

Illustration by Victoria Xu

Illustration by Victoria Xu

The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered in 1897 when coal tar derivative researcher Dr. Constantine Fahlberg quite literally brought his work home with him. After a day in the lab, he sat down to dinner and bit into an unusually sweet piece of bread. He realized the chemical that caused the sweetness had been dusted on his fingers, and so returned and performed the highly inadvisable act of tasting everything on his lab bench (which was full of coal tar derivatives) in order to find the source of the sweetness. Once he found the culprit within an overboiled beaker, in another decision that would surely draw much alarm today, he tested its safety by ingesting another 10 grams and waiting 24 hours [4]. The substance passed through him, unmetabolized, and was deemed safe. Saccharin was 300 times sweeter than sugar and cheaper, causing its popularity to spread rapidly. President Roosevelt’s personal physician prescribed it to him for the purposes of weight loss. Companies started adding it to soda as a cheap substitute for sugar. At the time, sugar was perceived as a health food. Thus, when people eventually found out that their soda was sweetened with saccharin instead of sugar, they revolted. President Roosevelt, who was a diabetic, had to intervene to make sure saccharin remained on the market, albeit as medicine rather than food [3]. It was offered in pill and powder form and was prescribed to treat everything from headaches to nausea to corpulence. Eventually, like the sugar before it, saccharin became an all-purpose curative. Canners used it as a preservative and diabetics used it to sweeten their coffee or tea. Today, it can be found in packets of Sweet ‘N Low, alongside Splenda, Equal and other artificial sweeteners.

The prevalence of artificial sweeteners continued to climb during World War II, when sugar was scarce, but their safety was never completely agreed upon by the scientific community or government regulators. The burden of choice fell on the individual to decide on if they should consume this synthesized product. Ultimately, consumers were eager to have their desire for sweetness satiated without consequences like weight gain, but post-war researchers were skeptical and started investigating the long-term health consequences. In the late 1960s, increasing government regulation of the food processing industry and the growing sophistication of health science brought increased scrutiny on artificial sweeteners [2]. One of the results of these developments was the ban on cyclamate in 1969. Cyclamate, an artificial sweetener discovered in 1937, was commonly combined with saccharin to counter the bitter aftertaste that saccharin left [4]. Just one year before the cyclamate ban was instituted, two studies linked the chemical to bladder cancer, which left only one artificial sweetener on the market: saccharin.

Saccharin was not immune to scrutiny either. 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 [3]. The large chemical companies that synthesized saccharin like Monsanto, Lakeway Chemicals and Sherwin-Williams opposed the prohibition, as did soda and diet food companies who all expected a painful financial hit. A public relations operation was launched by these companies in order to prevent the ban. It was portrayed as government meddling, and Congress was flooded with letters. Saccharin sales skyrocketed from free publicity. Scientists also could not come to an agreement on its dangers and whether a rat was a sufficiently accurate model for how saccharin behaved in the human body. By 1979, 44 million Americans were consuming it daily in their desserts, coffees and other highly processed foods. Nowadays, the number of Americans that consume artificial sweeteners is so high that researchers struggle to find subjects who have not eaten it in order to study the effects [2].

Congress continued to debate this issue until 2000, when a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) study declared the earlier research invalid. The high doses of saccharin given to the rats were a poor analog to human consumption, as rats digest saccharin differently from that of humans. Citing this evidence, the NIEHS recommended that Congress officially declare saccharin safe for human consumption. However, it was not government regulation that finally 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 that could also be produced cheaply. In 1965 aspartame, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar, was discovered. It was followed in 1976 by sucralose, which was 600 times sweeter than sugar, and in 2002 by neotame, 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar [5]. Debate still exists about whether these artificial sweeteners have negative health effects. While they may not be carcinogenic, there is some evidence that the sweet taste without calories can actually fuel more overeating than the expected  weight loss [1]. Speculation still remains about aspartame leading to weight gain and sucralose causing issues with metabolism.

Since Fahlberg’s serendipitous discovery, Americans have held mixed feelings about artificial sweeteners. It was cheap, and as Americans became more diet-conscious, it became the no-calorie alternative to sugar. Those who wanted to lose weight still wanted sweetness without consequences and manufacturers obliged. But while eagerly embracing these improvements, the general public remains suspicious of the synthetic chemicals in their food. The organic food movement is symbolic of this long-held suspicion about how food reaches ends up on dinner tables. It also evokes suspicion of science, specifically the nightmare image of Frankenfood. When it comes to food, Americans want the benefits of scientific progress without the actual science. People want better, faster and more, but with the additional and perhaps unattainable caveat of being “all natural.”

Edited by: Jessica Yu

Illustrated by: Victoria Xu

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