Health effects of artificial sweeteners: Where do we stand? —
Millions of Americans use tabletop artificial sweeteners each day. Millions more eat foods sweetened with combinations of the fake stuff. But just how healthy are they?
The 137-year history of these nonnutritive options is full of health concerns, both overblown and real.
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1879: First artificial sweetener, saccharin, is finger lickin' good-for-you —
Oddly enough, it was bad laboratory technique -- combined with poor hygiene -- that led to the discovery of several of today's top artificial sweeteners.
Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg was eating dinner when he made an amazing discovery: The roll he'd just bitten into tasted extremely sweet. Realizing the sugary, metallic taste had come from his own hands, he rushed back to the lab to find the source. After tasting everything in sight -- not exactly good lab safety protocol -- he discovered the sweetness came from an accidental chemical reaction between coal tar derivatives (yum!), producing benzoic sulfinide.
That's one version of the story. Another account says Fahlberg's American boss, Dr. Ira Remsen, was the diner who forgot to wash up before eating. Regardless, it was Fahlberg who applied for a patent for saccharin as an inexpensive sugar substitute
Boston Public Library
1900: Poison Squad eats food heavily laced with saccharin —
In the early 1900s, a group of civil servants was given free room and board if the men would eat food heavily laced with widely used chemical preservatives, including borax and saccharin.
They were required to weigh in and take their vital signs before each meal and report any physical reactions. They also had to supply their urine and feces for analysis.
1908: Weight-watching President Roosevelt keeps saccharin from being banned —
But Roosevelt would have none of it, as he was using saccharin to manage his weight. Wiley describes the President's reaction in his autobiography: "'You say saccharin is injurious to health? Why, Doctor Rixey gives it to me every day. Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.'"
1970: Cyclamate will give you cancer, if you are a lab rat —
The 1970s saw a number of studies of lab rats fed high doses of saccharin and a newly discovered sweetener, cyclamate. Cyclamate was linked to bladder, urinary, lung, stomach and reproductive tumors in the rodents.
While later studies found the bladder issues were due to parasites and other urinary peculiarities unique to rats, the damage was done. The FDA banned cyclamate in 1970. While 100 other countries have declared cyclamate safe and use it in their food, the FDA ban remains in the United States.
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1977: Saccharin gets a warning label —
Because saccharin had such a bitter, metallic aftertaste, cyclamate was added to the tabletop version, Sweet'N Low, in a 10-1 ratio. When cyclamate was banned, the makers of Sweet'N Low quickly switched to an all-saccharin version, but suspicions remained about saccharin's role as a carcinogen in rats.
In 1977 Congress decreed that any food sweetened with saccharin must carry a scary warning label: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."
1965: Another accidental find, in many ways 'Equal' to its predecessors —
Chemist James M. Schlatter was looking for an anti-ulcer drug when he stumbled upon the sweet taste of aspartame by (you guessed it) licking his finger. A mix of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two naturally occurring amino acids, aspartame entered the growing artificial sweetener market in 1973. Today it's sold as Equal, Nutrasweet or Sugar Twin.
Unlike the other artificial sweeteners, which are usually excreted unchanged, aspartame can be metabolized, so it does have minimal calories (about 4 per gram). It also has some known uncommon health concerns. It should not be used by anyone with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria or certain rare liver disorders, or pregnant women with high levels of phenylalanine in their blood, because it doesn't metabolize properly in those individuals. The FDA requires any food made with aspartame to put that restriction on the label.