The Bizarre History Of Artificial Sweeteners

Synthetic sweeteners seem like a miracle food. They require no land for growing, no smoke-belching refineries, and most of them pass through your body unmetabolized, which is what makes them zero-calorie and safe for diabetics, since they don’t affect blood sugar levels. The perfect food of the future. If only.


The promise of a calorie-free treat has stronger pull than any of these deterrents, which is why the next big sweetener is always around the corner.


Dig into the backgrounds of the Big Four artificial sweeteners—saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame and sucralose—and you’ll find no shortage of fraught history. There have been questions of safety. Cancer in lab animals. Reports that sugar substitutes actually encourage weight gain. And they don’t taste that good.


But the promise of a calorie-free treat has stronger pull than any of these deterrents, which is why the next big sweetener is always around the corner. The histories of these compounds also reveal the unexpected roads the scientific discovery process takes; the path to sugar-free sweetness takes detours through everything from coal tar to ulcer medication.


In the Beginning, There was Saccharin


Saccharin, named for the Latin word for sugar, was discovered accidentally in 1897 by a Johns Hopkins University researcher who was looking for new uses for coal tar derivatives. He forgot to wash his hands before lunch and tasted something sweet on his fingers. (Similar versions of this story occur in the accidental discoveries of cyclamate, aka Sweet’N Low, and aspartame, too.)


After tasting everything in his lab to determine the source, he figured out it was benzoic sulfimide, a coal tar derivative that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. (Fun fact: Monsanto got its start in 1901 selling saccharin.)


By 1907, saccharin was already widely used in sodas and canned goods, but most Americans had no idea it was in their food. As part of a series of sweeping food and drug reforms, Harvey Wiley, the head of the chemical division of the United States Department of Agriculture, recommended banning saccharin for possibly being toxic. The person who got in his way was President Theodore Roosevelt, who was on a weight-loss regimen that included a dose of saccharin prescribed by his doctor.


The sweetener was eventually banned in 1912, but the decision was reversed during World War I, when sugar rations necessitated the use of saccharin as a substitute. Once the war was over, people continued to enjoy the calorie-free sweetener.