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Saccharin: The Substance that “out-sugared sugar"

#42 Science in History

27th February 1879

Today in 1879, Constantin Fahlberg accidentally discovers the artificial sweetener saccharin.

Fahlberg was researching coal tar compounds, particularly benzoic sulfimide, at Johns Hopkins University when he made his discovery - by accident. While working in his laboratory, Fahlberg noticed the sweet taste of saccharin after he forgot to wash his hands before eating dinner. He noticed that the bread he was eating tasted unusually sweet and realized that the sweetness came from a chemical he had been working with in the lab - “I had discovered or made some coal tar substance which “out-sugared sugar".

He named the compound Saccharin, derived from the Greek word "sakcharon," meaning sugar. It was found to be around 300 times sweeter than sugar, heat stable, is excreted rapidly in the urine and does not accumulate in the body. Obtaining patents for its synthesis, Fahlberg started to produce and market it, subsequently becoming very wealthy.

The Molecular Structure of Saccharin

In 1906, a saccharin ban was proposed in the USA. The story goes that Theodore Roosevelt was told that it might be harmful to his health. The proposed ban was scuppered when the less than svelte Teddy Roosevelt, an avid coffee drinker, declared, “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.” A nice story but there is, however, no evidence to support this claim, and it is unlikely that Roosevelt played a direct role in the regulation of saccharin.

Saccharin’s use became common during World War I due to the shortage of sugar and in the 1960s, it began to be promoted for weight loss since it has no nutritional value. In 1979, Saccharin was temporarily banned in the UK due to concerns over its safety. At the time there was some evidence, from a study on rats, to suggest that saccharin might be linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer. Dutifully, the UK government banned the use of saccharin in certain products, including soft drinks. In 1980, the ban was lifted after further studies failed to find a conclusive link between saccharin and cancer in humans.

Saccharin is currently produced from methyl anthranilate, a substance occurring naturally in grapes. Because of its bitter after taste (there had to be a downside!), it is mostly used in combination with other sweeteners.

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