Saccharin – a guide to artificial sweeteners

The world's first artificial sweetener was discovered in 1879 and had its breakthrough during the First World War. Today, saccharin is somewhat outdated, competing with younger models.

20 October 2020 •

In our series ‘Guide to arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers’, we have come to sac­cha­rin, which has a dra­mat­ic sto­ry that could fit right into a movie. During its long his­to­ry, it has received much crit­i­cism and was even banned in the 1990s. The ques­tion is, is there any truth in President Roosevelt’s famous state­ment: ‘Anyone who says that sac­cha­rin is dan­ger­ous is an idiot!’

What is saccharin?

Saccharin is the world’s first arti­fi­cial sweet­en­er. It went on sale in Germany in 1885 and made a great impact dur­ing the First World War when the short­age of sug­ar was great.

Its sys­tem­at­ic name is 1,1-dioxo-1,2-benzothiazol-3-one. Its chem­i­cal name is C6H4SO2NHCO. Saccharin has an E-num­ber: 954.

Saccharin is 500 times sweet­er than sug­ar and is often used in com­bi­na­tion with aspar­tame or cycla­mate. It can with­stand heat and has a long shelf life. Saccharin is often used in baked goods, jams, jel­ly, chew­ing gum, canned fruit, can­dy, dessert top­pings, and sal­ad dress­ings. It can also be found in cos­met­ic prod­ucts, includ­ing tooth­paste and mouth­wash. Additionally, it’s a com­mon ingre­di­ent in med­i­cines, vit­a­mins, and pharmaceuticals.

Have you used sugar in the bread?

Saccharin was dis­cov­ered in 1879 by Constantin Fahlberg, who con­duct­ed research under the direc­tion of Ira Remsen. Fahlberg would become both rich and famous thanks to sac­cha­rine, while Remsen had to wait a long time for his recognition.

It all start­ed with an American com­pa­ny being accused of hav­ing coloured sug­ar brown (to get a low­er sug­ar tax due to poor­er qual­i­ty). The com­pa­ny hired the chemist Fahlberg as an expert wit­ness. The law­suit dragged on, and Remsen brought Fahlberg into his team.

One day when Fahlberg was hav­ing din­ner, he dis­cov­ered that the bread tast­ed sweet. He accused his house­keep­er of bak­ing bread with sug­ar. The house­keep­er, for her part, accused Fahlberg of being an unscrupu­lous employ­er. After a brief alter­ca­tion, Fahlberg had to admit the house­keep­er was right because it was not the bread that was sweet, but his hands. And not just the hands. Both his arms tast­ed sweet! How could that be?

He quit eat­ing and rushed back to the lab­o­ra­to­ry where he imme­di­ate­ly began lick­ing all the glass­es and bowls until he found the source of the sweetness.

Obtained a patent in his own name

After test­ing his ‘anhy­dro-ortho-sul­famine-ben­zoic acid’ (lat­er renamed by Fahlberg to Fahlberg’s sac­cha­rin) on some rab­bits who did not com­plain, Fahlberg trav­elled to Germany and took out a patent on the sweet­en­er in his own name and start­ed a fac­to­ry in 1885.

Remsen nev­er for­gave this betray­al. Shortly before his death, he said: ‘I did not want his mon­ey, but I did feel that I ought to have received a lit­tle cred­it for the discovery’.

Fahlberg became rich on his sac­cha­rine, which caught the eyes of the European sug­ar barons who saw their own sales fall. Politicians in Germany and oth­er European coun­tries also want­ed to keep up the price of sug­ar, as the tax on sug­ar was a major source of income dur­ing this time. Several laws and restric­tions were enforced. This led, among oth­er things, to sac­cha­rin only being sold in phar­ma­cies (to dia­bet­ics) and for the state to deter­mine the price. In prac­tice, sac­cha­rin was banned, and the price of sug­ar rose sharply.

This led to exten­sive smug­gling of sac­cha­rin. There was, in fact, one coun­try left where it remained free: in neu­tral Switzerland. They did not have a tax on sug­ar; it would be a dis­ad­van­tage to their choco­late pro­duc­tion. Therefore, they didn’t per­ceive sac­cha­rin as a threat that should be lim­it­ed. Among oth­er things, smug­glers melt­ed sac­cha­rin into wax and made can­dles of it, which they could then smug­gle across the bor­der to sweet-lov­ing neighbours.

Soon came World War I, and there was a short­age of sug­ar. Politicians who pre­vi­ous­ly want­ed to ban sac­cha­rin now hailed it as a gift from the gods. Saccharin was released ‘freely’ and expe­ri­enced a time of great­ness that last­ed until the end of World War II.

The roar of Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

In the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt played an impor­tant role in the sur­vival of sac­cha­rine. In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, resis­tance to food addi­tives such as cocaine, opi­um and cannabis grew. The chemist Dr Harvey W. Wiley ran a cam­paign to cre­ate laws against addi­tives and espe­cial­ly want­ed to ban sac­cha­rin, which he con­sid­ered to be espe­cial­ly dangerous.

When he came to President Roosevelt, he made the mis­take of speak­ing before being addressed. It’s not a smart tac­tic when social­iz­ing with kings or pres­i­dents. Roosevelt became so angry that he final­ly shout­ed: ‘Anyone who says that sac­cha­rin is harm­ful to health is an idiot!’

The very next day, Roosevelt put togeth­er a ref­er­ee board by con­sult­ing sci­en­tif­ic experts to eval­u­ate once and for all the health risks asso­ci­at­ed with saccharin.

The leader of the group and who thus had the pow­er to ban sac­cha­rin was Remsen, the man who didn’t get the cred­it for his dis­cov­ery. He now had an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to take revenge on his old col­league Fahlberg.

But Remsen was always on the side of sci­ence. He didn’t let his emo­tions con­trol him. He went through all the research that was avail­able and came to the con­clu­sion that sac­cha­rin was safe. Remsen’s old col­league Fahlberg got a green light to sell sac­cha­rin in the USA and became – if pos­si­ble – even rich­er. In 1959, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) ruled that sac­cha­rin should be viewed as GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe).

Is saccharin safe?

In 1997, the Canadian Minister of Health told the WHO that Canada would ban sac­cha­rin due to test rats hav­ing blad­der can­cer. Among oth­er things, this led to Coca-Cola and Pepsi see­ing their light prod­ucts banned. The research to which the Minister of Health referred was not com­plete and the researchers dis­tanced them­selves from his state­ment. However, the news spread wide­ly, and the United States also decid­ed to ban sac­cha­rin until the mat­ter was investigated.

The FDA even­tu­al­ly launched a press release that showed that peo­ple would have to drink 800 bot­tles of sug­ar-sweet­ened soda every day dur­ing a life­time to get as much as the rats in the Canadian study.

After 18 months, the United States released its ban, but by then the dam­age had already been done. Saccharin got a bad rep­u­ta­tion that it did not man­age to shake off.

Does saccharin affect the intestinal flora?

An Israeli study pub­lished in 2014 in the sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal Nature showed stud­ies on rats that sac­cha­rin, sucralose and aspar­tame can affect the intesti­nal flo­ra, which in turn can raise the lev­els of glu­cose in the blood. The same study was done on sev­en peo­ple. Four of them had poor­er glu­cose sen­si­tiv­i­ty. There is too lit­tle evi­dence to draw any def­i­nite con­clu­sions. More stud­ies are need­ed, the researchers say. It is worth keep­ing an eye on future research.

What ADI does saccharin have?

ADI stands for accept­able dai­ly intake and shows an upper rec­om­mend­ed lev­el for how much to eat of a cer­tain sub­stance. The ADI for sac­cha­rin is 5 mg per kilo­gram body weight. The ADI for cycla­mate is 7 mg. For aspar­tame, it is 40 mg.

Benefits of Saccharine

  • It is 500 times sweet­er than sugar.
  • Saccharin is sta­ble when heat­ed and in an acidic environment.
  • It has a long shelf life.
  • It con­tains no calories.
  • It has been around for a long time and has been test­ed in many studies.

Disadvantages of saccharin

  • It has a bit­ter or metal­lic after­taste, espe­cial­ly at high concentrations.
  • Although it is clas­si­fied as safe, many orga­ni­za­tions rec­om­mend that chil­dren and preg­nant women should not eat it.
  • It can cause aller­gic reac­tions such as headaches, dif­fi­cul­ty breath­ing, diar­rhoea and skin problems.
  • For peri­ods, it has only been sold with a warn­ing label.
  • Sackarin has a half-baked rep­u­ta­tion and has at times only been sold with a warn­ing label.

A Summary

Saccharin was dis­cov­ered in 1879 and is the world’s first arti­fi­cial sweet­en­er. It had its hey­day dur­ing the First and Second World Wars when there was rationing on sug­ar. It was also pop­u­lar in the 1960s and 1970s when light bev­er­ages had its break­through. Since then, its star has fall­en due to bad pub­lic­i­ty, manda­to­ry warn­ing texts and bans.

The future is natural

Steviol gly­co­sides (col­lo­qui­al­ly called ste­via) are nat­u­ral­ly sweet sub­stances found in the ste­via plant.

Steviol gly­co­sides are extract­ed from the ste­via plant in much the same way that sug­ar is extract­ed from sug­ar beets and sug­ar cane.

Stevia has been used for cen­turies as a sweet­en­er by the indige­nous peo­ple of Paraguay and cen­tral South America.

Curious about stevia?

Are you curi­ous about ste­via and ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides? We devel­op ste­via extracts for dif­fer­ent sorts of food. Take a look at our range of ser­vices or con­tact us if you want to know more about how we can help you.

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