The History of Artificial Sweeteners

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Podcast Transcript

In 1879, Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist at Johns Hopkins University, made an astonishing discovery. He was conducting experiments with coal tar when he forgot to wash his hands. 

When he started eating lunch, he noticed something odd. His fingers tasted sweet. 

Fahlberg’s discovery was the start of a century-long pursuit to create alternatives to sugar.

Learn more about artificial sweeteners, how they were developed, and how they work on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The very first artificial sweetener was something you probably would never want to consume. 

The ancient Romans created a substance that was known throughout history as the salt of Saturn, Goulard’s powder, or lead sugar.  Chemists today would call it lead acetate, and I can guess you can figure out from the ‘lead’ part why you wouldn’t want to consume it. 

Lead sugar was one of the few sweeteners that the Romans had beyond honey. They would create it by boiling grape juice in lead pots until it became a syrup. 

There have been several cases throughout history of lead poisoning from lead sugar. Pope Clement II died in 1047 of lead poisoning due to the consumption of lead sugar. 

Beethoven may have died from lead sugar used to sweeten his wine, even though by the time of his death, it had been made illegal to use. 

Sugar originated in India but was never traded in quantity to Europe. It wasn’t until it became cultivated in the new world that its consumption exploded. 

In the 19th century, sugar beets were grown when sugar was embargoed during the Napoleonic Wars. 

The story of sugar itself will be left for another episode. However, the important fact is that despite the high demand for sugar in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sugar will still be relatively expensive. 

In 1879, Constantin Fahlberg was a chemist conducting experiments with coal tar. Coal tar is a type of creosote that is a by-product of the creation of coke and coal gas. In particular, he was working with a compound made from it called benzoic sulfimide. 

Before washing his hands, he tasted his fingers while eating lunch and noticed that they tasted very sweet. He figured out that the sweet taste came from the benzoic sulfimide he had been working with. 

He and his laboratory supervisor, Ira Remsen, developed a way to synthesize the compound from o-sulfamoylbenzoic acid.

Fahlberg published an academic paper on his discovery and then began applying for patents around the world for a method of creating this substance that he called…saccharin. 

In 1886, Fahlberg moved to Germany, where he began the production of saccharin on an industrial scale. 

Saccharin wasn’t a simple substitute for sugar. Saccharin is actually 550x sweeter than sugar, which means the amount of saccharin you need to achieve the same amount of sweetness as sugar is 1/550th the amount.

Saccharin also doesn’t taste exactly like sugar. In its pure form, it has a metallic aftertaste.

Most importantly, saccharin can’t be metabolized by humans. Hence, unlike sugar, it has no calories.

In 1901, a company was founded in Saint Louis, Missouri, by John Francis Queeny, which imported saccharin to the United States from Germany. The company would then resell it to companies like soda manufacturers who used sugar. 

The name of this company, which Queeny named after his wife’s maiden name? Monsanto. 

There was actually a fair amount of saccharin used in the first several years of the 20th century in the United States. Most people think of artificial sweeteners as something which was introduced in the latter half of the 20th century, but saccharin was being used decades earlier. 

The reason why it was so heavily used had nothing to do with calories, weight loss, or nutrition. It had everything to do with price.

Saccharin was simply cheaper than sugar. 

The reason why no one thinks of saccharin being used this early is that the manufacturers who added it to their food never disclosed it. There were literally no labeling or disclosure requirements for food additives at the time. 

The publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair increased public concern about food additives. In 1907, the Food and Drug Administration wanted to ban saccharin because they felt it was a deceptive practice of replacing a superior product with an inferior one and also because it was thought that it might be toxic. 

The person who blocked the ban was actually President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.”  He fired the FDA agent who proposed the ban.

This was the beginning of a series of government flip-flops on saccharin. 

In 1912, the US government declared saccharin to be an adulterated substance and banned it. Then, that same year, they declared it to be safe.

The ban lasted until the first world war when there was a shortage of sugar. 

Then in the late 1940s, the FDA conducted an investigation trying to prove that saccharin was harmful, but couldn’t find any evidence that it was.

Finally, in 1977, studies found that saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats. The FDA wanted to ban saccharin but compromised on simply putting a warning on packages that said, “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals”.

The warning was eventually dropped in 2000 when new research found that humans didn’t react the same as rats to saccharin.

While saccharin was the first artificial sweetener, it is hardly the only one. In fact, it is only the third most popular artificial sweetener in use today. 

The most popular brand of saccharin is Sweet N Low.

The next major artificial sweetener which was discovered was Cyclamate.

As with saccharin, the discovery of cyclamate was an accident. In 1937 a University of Illinois graduate student named Michael Sveda was working on synthesizing a drug when he took a puff of a cigarette that was sitting nearby, and it tasted sweet. 

Cyclamate is only 50 times sweeter than sugar, making it less potent than other artificial sweeteners.

Cyclamate was approved as being generally safe in 1958, and it was soon followed by the first diet soft drinks.

The first diet beverage was Diet-Rite cola by the Royal Crown Company, which was released in 1958. The sweetener was a mixture of cyclamate and saccharin. 

In 1963, the Coca-Cola company released their diet drink called Tab, which also used cyclamate and saccharin, and the same year Pepsi released Patio, which was later renamed as Diet Pepsi.

However, in 1969 it was taken off the market. A study that tested the 10:1 ratio of cyclamate to saccharin used in many beverages found that eight out of 240 rats developed bladder tumors when fed the human equivalent of 550 cans of diet soda a day. 

Today cyclamate is banned in the United States but is still approved for use in most countries around the world, including the EU. 

In 1965, Aspartame was discovered. Once again, the story is almost the same as the other sweeteners I’ve mentioned. Chemist James Schlatter was working on developing an anti-ulcer drug when he licked his finger to pick up a piece of paper and found it was sweet.

Aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar and, of all the approved artificial sweeteners, has a taste closest to sugar. 

Technically aspartame doesn’t have zero calories. It does actually have four calories per gram, but because it is so sweet, the amount needed results in a negligible amount of calories. 

Aspartame was approved for general use in 1981 and quickly became one of the most popular artificial sweeteners. It was the sweetener used in one of the most popular diet beverages of all time, Diet Coke, and Diet Pepsi switched to it in 1983. 

Aspartame has become one of the most-tested food substances in history, and it has been approved for consumption by over 100 countries.

Just as a side note, both Diet Coke and Coke Zero both use aspartame as their sweetener. The difference between the two beverages is other ingredients. Diet Coke contains citric acid, whereas Coke Zero has potassium citrate and acesulfame (ass-a-sul-fame) potassium.

Aspartame is often sold by itself under the brand name Nutrasweet.

The final of the big four artificial sweeteners to be discovered was sucralose. 

In 1976, chemists Leslie Hough and Shashikant Phadnis at Queens College in London were researching compounds of chlorinated sugar. These were compounds based on actual sucrose molecules. 

Hough asked Phadnis to “test” one of the compounds, but Phadnis misunderstood him and thought he said to “taste” one of the compounds. Again, via an accidental discovery, Phandnis found the substance to be extremely sweet. 

Sucralose is the most potent of all the major artificial sweeteners. It is 1000 times sweeter than sugar, three times as sweet as aspartame, and twice as sweet as saccharin. 

Pepsi briefly switched from aspartame to sucralose between 2015 and 2018 but switched back due to a drop in sales. 

Sucralose is most commonly sold under the brand name Splenda. 

These four artificial sweeteners, saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, and sucralose, are by far the most popular artificial sweeteners in the world. 

However, they are not the only ones. 

Tagatose, also known by the brand name Natrulose®, is based on lactose, the sugar found in milk.

Acesulfame, which I mentioned before and is found in Coke Zero, is also a sweetener that can be found under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One. It has a stronger aftertaste than most artificial sweeteners, so it has limited use.

Stevia is derived from the stevia plant in South America. Technically it isn’t an artificial sweetener as it comes from a natural source. 

There is also a category of sweeteners known as sugar alcohols. These are sucrose molecules with hydrogen atoms attached. Despite the name “alcohol,” they do not contain ethanol and have nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. 

Sugar alcohols are often used in candies and gum and may result in intestinal problems as they are not digested by the small intestine….something to which I can personally attest.

The one thing that many of you are wondering is, what about the health consequences of artificial sweeteners? 

You can’t make a blanket claim about every single sweetener, as they are all different chemicals and behave differently.

That being said, collectively, these are some of the most tested food additives in history. There have been thousands of tests conducted over the better part of a century by hundreds of governments and institutions. 

Furthermore, given the incredibly large number of people who consume them, there appears to be no evidence of any link to cancer, which is what most tests are looking for. 

That being said, one of the biggest concerns which have arisen in recent years has been the effect artificial sweeteners have on obesity. 

This is something that no one really expected, and there hasn’t been as much research because the entire point of artificial sweeteners is that they have zero or few calories. Certainly, if there are no calories, then how could it cause obesity?

One theory that has been proposed is that even though these molecules are not metabolized like glucose, they may still create a similar response in the body due to the sweet taste or maybe due to a reaction in the gut microbiome. 

This, however, is not a health podcast; given the time constraints, it would be impossible to do the issue justice…and considering the current state of research, I’m not even sure if there is a conclusive answer that can be given right now. 

Artificial sweeteners have become a big business. They can be found in a wide number of products, including some that you might not even realize have artificial sweeteners in them. 

It is estimated that Artificial sweeteners are an $8 billion dollar global business today. As big as it is, it is still four and a half times smaller than the global sugar industry. 

While the sweeteners I’ve mentioned in this episode are the most popular ones today, you never know when some scientist, while in the middle of an experiment, will stick their finger in their mouth to discover a new one.