The sickly history of sweeteners

    The history of artificial sweeteners is a history of public neuroses, bad science, paranoid distrust of corporations and regulatory failure. It plays to our fear of what we don’t understand, absurd risk-aversion on the part of regulators and the political effectiveness of legislating popular prejudices. [Great article by Daily Maverick’s Ivo Vegter] The modern food industry is a testament to human ingenuity and progress. A combination of agricultural productivity, industrial efficiency and applied science provides most of the world’s population with an abundant choice of fresh and tasty food. Food companies conduct extensive market research to try to discover what customers find good to eat, where “good” means both “healthy” and “tasty”. Chemistry, financial and operations wizards then figure out ways to produce what the studies found, at prices that customers are willing to pay. And then, and then (cue ominous music), the evil bastards give us what we want.

    Except, as we all know, Big Food includes companies like Monsanto, and companies like Monsanto kill people for sport. Their preferred sporting event is to poison cute little children while their mothers are watching. And how do they do this? By lacing food with “synthetic chemicals created in a laboratory”, of course. One such poison is sucralose, which according to “The World’s #1 Natural Health Website”, Dr Mercola, is similar to compounds like DDT and Agent Orange.

    Another is aspartame, which the same a purveyor of alternative health products claims is “by far the most dangerous substance added to food”. It says a recent study found “clear association between aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukaemia in men”. (We’ll read the study Dr Joseph Mercola cites to justify this “clear association” claim in a minute.)

    Ask anyone who enjoys indulging fears of food safety, cancer and synthetic chemicals, and they’ll tell you artificial sweeteners are bad for you. Ask anyone who can’t bear taking responsibility for their own behaviour and they’ll tell you the food industry – of “Big Food”, as detractors like to call it – is the cause of all their problems, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and cancer.

    But they’d be wrong.

    Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Anyone here remember saccharin? Back in the 1970s, when margarine was the concerned mother’s favourite bread spread, saccharin was a popular sweetener for weight watchers. That is until we discovered it causes cancer and mom quietly made it disappear from the pantry shelf, guilt-ridden over the premature death to which her lack of caution had condemned her children.

    Saccharin was one of those serendipitous discoveries that science sometimes throws up. A chance collaboration in the late 1870s between Ira Remsen, an American medical doctor and chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University with extensive research experience in Germany, and Constantin Fahlberg, a Russian chemist working for a sugar import firm named HW Perot in Baltimore, Maryland, produced a substance that, when Fahlberg accidentally tasted it, proved to be far sweeter than sugar, though with a somewhat bitter aftertaste.

    In 1879, the pair wrote a paper describing methods to synthesize benzoic sulfenide, or saccharin. Fahlberg was ultimately awarded the patents, against Remsen’s protests, and by the middle of the next decade, had tested the substance for safety (using himself as a guinea pig) and set up a production facility. Its primary use was as a drinks sweetener, though doctors also prescribed it as a curative for all sorts of conditions, including obesity.

    In 1906, an influential book by Upton Sinclair appeared entitled The Jungle. The famously muckraking journalist was an avid socialist and wrote a dystopian exposé of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. His book is widely believed to have led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which laid the basis for food safety regulation as we know it around the world today.

    As early as 1908, saccharin was the target of an attempted ban on the vague suspicion that a synthetic chemical, and a coal-tar derivative to boot, can’t possibly be good for you. President Teddy Roosevelt gave the proposed ban short shrift: “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.”

    Roosevelt’s diktat was correct, because there was no scientific evidence that it caused harm, and plenty of evidence of economic benefits. But his ruling was unscientific in that it was based on his personal experience of consuming it every day. He was right for the wrong reasons.

    This sparked a standoff between health lobbyists claiming to act in the public interest, and industry lobbyists acting on behalf of corporate producers. Roosevelt created a panel of scientists, chaired by Ira Remsen, which declared saccharin to be safe in small doses, but the bureaucrats in charge of enforcing the new food safety law determined that such moderation could not be guaranteed. Saccharin would henceforth be prohibited in processed foods.

    Ironically, one of the grounds for its fall from favour was the very thing that made it popular half a century later, namely that sugar had nutritional value, while saccharine did not. Scientific evidence remained inconclusive, and claims by both sides in the debate remained controversial and unresolved.

    During World War I, the largest saccharin producer, Monsanto, took to the newspapers to advertise its product as a solution to rising sugar prices. Although the ban on use in processed foods remained, nothing stopped drug stores from selling the pure product directly to consumers. World War II saw another spike in popularity for the sweetener and it was soon permitted as a food additive once more.

    While the desire for a guilt-free, non-fattening sweetener at first trumped the inconclusive claims of health risks, the times they were a-changing. In 1958, a legislative amendment introduced the Delaney Clause, which prohibited the use of carcinogens in food. It seemed simple. Who’d want to put cancer-causing agents in food?

    Meanwhile, artificially sweetened soft drinks and sweeteners designed for tea and coffee grew in popularity, but a counter-revolution was also underway. Popular distrust of industrialisation and synthetic chemicals was on the rise, to reach a peak with the idealistic notions of natural purity of the hippie era.

    But, as Dr Bruce Ames, renowned biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley points out, there is really no category difference between synthetic and natural chemicals. The former may have been tested more frequently, but in both cases about half of all substances that are tested turn out to be carcinogenic.

    It doesn’t matter that some carcinogens are found in fresh fruit and vegetables, while others are made in labs. It doesn’t matter that animal tests are not always a good analogue for carcinogenicity in humans, because disease mechanisms differ or because humans ingest far lower doses…..

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