Sweet as saccharin

Saccharin, the oldest and first commercially available artificial sweetener, was discovered in the 1870s and patented on September 15, 1885. Discovered by chance, this organic compound has made life sweeter for many. A.S.Ganesh gets into the story of how saccharin came to be...

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:16 pm IST

Published - September 15, 2019 01:55 am IST

Bronze relief of Constantin Fahlberg.

Bronze relief of Constantin Fahlberg.

Did you know that our hunter-gatherer ancestors used to devour foods that were rich in sweets and calories, as they were few and far between? In fact, there is a gorging gene theory that attempts to explain our current eating habits, which continues to be high on sweets and calories, by tracing it back to those very ancestors. Gorging or not, sweets constitute an important portion of our diet and it is for this reason that both sugar and artificial sweeteners continue to play a crucial part in how we live.

Artificial sweeteners, however, are a rather recent phenomenon. Saccharin, which is the oldest to be discovered, came about only late in the 19th Century and having become the first such commercially available substance, it dominated the scene until the second half of the 20th Century.

Remsen meets Fahlberg

The discovery of saccharin takes us back to the 1870s when Ira Remsen, an American chemist, returned to the U.S. and accepted a professorship at the John Hopkins University. As the university was founded only in 1876, it was, in fact, Remsen who set up the Department of Chemistry at the university.

Portrait of Ira Remsen.

Portrait of Ira Remsen.

Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg entered the picture in 1877 when a firm that imported sugar enlisted him to analyse the purity of an import. That same firm put Fahlberg in touch with Remsen, getting him permission to use the latter’s laboratory for tests. Fahlberg and Remsen got along rather well and by 1878, Fahlberg took part in Remsen’s research at the institute.

Out-sugared sugar

On one of those days, Fahlberg was so sucked up in his lab work that he almost forgot his supper till quite late. When he broke a piece of bread and bit into a remarkably sweet crust, he merely assumed it must have been some cake. When he washed his mouth and dried his moustache with a napkin, he found that the napkin was even sweeter than the bread!

Puzzled, he next took his goblet of water. As luck would have it, he placed his mouth where his fingers had held it only moments previously, and the water tasted like a sugary syrup. Realising then that he was the cause of the universal sweetness, he licked his thumb, confirming his suspicion.

Knowing then that he had stumbled upon a coal-tar substance that “out-sugared sugar”, Fahlberg ran back to the laboratory and tasted everything that was on his worktable. He found the source and it took him weeks and months of work to determine its chemical composition, characteristics and reactions.

Even though Fahlberg had previously synthesised saccharin by another method, he had no reason to taste it back then. By 1879, Fahlberg and Remsen published a joint article describing both methods of synthesising saccharin.

Sweeter than sugar

Saccharin is an organic compound which is nearly 300 times as sweet as sugar. Though it seemed initially that neither discoverer was interested in its commercial potential, Fahlberg applied for German and American patents after leaving Remsen’s lab and without informing Remsen.

Fahlberg received his U.S. patent for saccharin on September 15, 1885 and soon set up shop, selling it as pills and powder. Entering the fray as an artificial sweetener, saccharin soon became a viable alternative to sugar. The sugar shortage and its price rice during the World Wars paved the way for saccharin to be a sugar-substitute and it soon became more than just that.

Saccharin’s tale, however, is also inextricably woven with the rise of consumer consciousness, food control and regulation, especially in the U.S. With scientific evidence from both sides – for and against saccharin – no clear-cut demarcation has been possible with regard to its usage. The lingering threat hovering over a possible saccharin ban therefore spawned research into alternatives. Meaning that when saccharin was finally pushed off its perch, it was to give way to a new generation of artificial sweeteners.

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