For decades, ads for treats sweetened with substances like Sweet’N Low, NutraSweet, and Splenda have promised what seems like a miracle of modern science: that you can enjoy all the dessert you want, calorie-free. No need to deprive yourself—with artificial sweeteners, you can literally have your cake and eat it, too. But are these substances safe? Don’t they cause cancer in rats and mess up your metabolism? Listen in now for answers to all these questions, plus the tale of a sugar-free gumball marketing blitz, courtesy of none other than Donald Rumsfeld.
More than a century ago, a chemist named Constantin Fahlberg was hard at work in a lab at Johns Hopkins University, trying to develop a new food preservative from coal tar. “He apparently licked his finger by accident, and noticed that it was sweet,” says Carolyn Thomas, author of Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners From Saccharin to Splenda. One gram of Fahlberg’s new substance was 500 times sweeter than a gram of sugar, so he gave this “perfectly harmless spice” the name saccharin, from the adjective saccharine, meaning “overly sweet.”
A small company by the name of Monsanto quickly brought saccharin to market, and companies started adding it to soda as a cheap substitute for sugar. “Consumers were actually tasting it before they even knew what it was,” Thomas explains. At the time, sugar was perceived as a health food, full of useful calories—and so when people eventually found out that their soda was “adulterated” with saccharin instead of sugar, they revolted, and saccharin was nearly banned. It took a presidential pardon to save it: Teddy Roosevelt, a diabetic, intervened to make sure saccharin remained on the shelves, albeit as medicine rather than food.