Low-calorie artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame have become key weapons in the fight against excess weight and obesity. The substances taste hundreds of times sweeter than natural sucrose, or table sugar, yet their chemical structure allows them to pass through the body and leave no calories behind. Nor do artificial sweeteners raise blood-sugar levels the way sucrose does. Saccharin is the oldest of the artificial sweeteners, but its history comes with a good dose of controversy.
What Is Saccharin?
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University discovered the sweet substance in 1879 while researching food preservatives. Saccharin is derived from one of two sources: toluene, which is a colorless hydrocarbon present in coal tar and petroleum, or methyl anthranilate, a natural substance found in flowers and grapes. Saccharin first hit the shelves in the United States in tablet form in the 1890s; by 1907, saccharin replaced natural sucrose in foods for diabetics. Packets of a granulated version reached U.S. tabletops in 1957 under the brand name Sweet’N Low, and by the 1960s, saccharin saw broad use in diet soft drinks. Its use in soft drinks has been almost completely replaced by aspartame.
Saccharin is distributed in restaurants and sold in grocery stores in individual packets under the brand names Sweet and Low, Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin and Necta Sweet. It’s found in processed baked goods sold in boxes on store shelves, as well as in jams and jellies, canned fruits, candy, salad dressings and dessert products such as whipped toppings. Consumers can also taste saccharin in ice creams and sugar-free chewing gum. Where you see processed diet products, you’re likely to find saccharin replacing natural sugar. Commercial bakers also use saccharin in fresh-baked sugar-free cookies, cakes and muffins. Some saccharins are also available to bakers for sugar substitutes in home baking.
Saccharin isn’t just for human food; a variety of animal feeds and animal pharmaceuticals contain the sugar substitute as well. Saccharin also appears in cosmetic products that people may ingest, including lipsticks, lip glosses and chapsticks or balms. Vitamin makers and pharmaceutical manufacturers use saccharin to improve the taste of their tablets and capsules. Toothpastes, cough syrups, mouthwashes, dental flosses and antacids can also contain saccharin for sugar-free, non-caloric flavoring.
Saccharin is one of the world’s most-researched food products. In the 1970s, a series of Canadian studies implicated saccharin in bladder cancer in laboratory rats. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration attempted to ban saccharin in 1977, but millions of Americans protested. The agency retreated on the ban, though it declared saccharin a hazardous, cancer-causing chemical. But scientists continued to investigate the sweetener. More than 30 human studies later, scientists largely agree that people don’t eat enough saccharin to develop illnesses related to the substance. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services removed saccharin from its list of cancer causers in 2000, while the Food and Drug Administration reclassified it as safe for humans in 2001. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed saccharin from its list of hazardous chemicals in 2010.