OT: Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda

“Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.” by Carolyn De La Pena, U North Carolina Press, 2010. This 279-page hardback presents the story of artificial sweeteners and their use as sugar substitutes by food processors, diabetics, and dieters. The book was published with the assistance of the Greensboro Woman’s Fund.

La Pena traces the history of artificial sweeteners from the days when they were sold to food processors as low cost sugar substitutes. Harvey Wiley, chemist for the USDA and later head of FDA, opposed “impure” foods. He thought chemical additives should be on the label. Food purity was the goal of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907. Wiley pushed for its adoption. The act was strongly resisted by the food industry, but Congress passed it after Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which although fictional told of unsavory practices in the meat packing industry.

The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered by Constantin Fahlberg at John’s Hopkins University working for Ira Remsen in 1879. La Pena says he researched “coal tar derivatives,” but the raw material, toluene, became a petrochemical in the 1920s. He sought food preservatives but thought its intense sweetness more valuable. He founded a company in Westhusen, Germany to manufacture. Remsen was displeased that Fahlberg did not include him. In 1885, Fahlberg met beverage manufacturers from New York in London. He presented saccharin as a consumer product at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, but with little success.

In 1901, John Queeny founded Monsanto Chemical in St. Louis to manufacture saccharin. He was sales agent for Westhusen and saw the opportunity in beverages. He hired chemists to develop a process. In 1903, he signed an exclusive sales contract with Liquid Carbonic Co to supply saccharin to soda fountain suppliers. In 1906, sugar was about 13 times more costly than saccharin for equal sweetness. Other early Monsanto products included caffeine and vanillin.

Wiley tried to have saccharin banned in 1908, but President Teddy Roosevelt’s committee found it not harmful in small amounts. In 1911, thanks to research by WO Atwater, sugar was a health food that provided nutritious calories. In 1910, Americans consumed 83 lb of sugar per year. Removal of sugar from food products angered customers. Soda manufacturers discontinued use of saccharin. Its use by diabetics was recognized in the 1910s for example in a 1912 New York Times article. Sugar shortages made saccharin popular in Europe during World War I but less so in the US.

The use of saccharin for weight loss reportedly began with President Roosevelt’s use in 1908. People began to experiment with it on the west coast. Sweeteners were offered by pharmaceutical companies like Abbott and St. John’s Laboratories. In the 1930’s women became interested in dieting–at the time “reducing.” Diet books began to appear. Diet parties were popular. Slimness was in vogue. It was the age of slimming suits, diet plans and weight-loss pills.

During World War II, sugar was rare, precious, and rationed. Available sugar was directed to soldiers, who often received two desserts per day as well as chocolate bars and Coca-Cola. Experts suggested corn syrup, molasses, or maple sugar as replacements. In France, “cakes” were made without flour, sugar, or eggs–using ground birdseed, almonds, and saccharin. ER Squibb produced small packets for the unaffected. In 1942, Monsanto sold all the saccharin they could make and Parke-Davis cited a 30 fold increase in demand. By 1945, saccharin’s reputation was more favorable.

The origin of dieting is unclear. In the 1950s women were brought into advertizing. It was the era of preferences for thinness as demonstrated by Twiggy rather than Marilyn. After World War II, saccharin for weight loss became more popular. The Sugar Institute responded with nutrition claims for sugar. Sugar consumption by women was considered indulgent.

Non-diabetics were advised to take up to two grains per day for weight loss. A quarter grain tablet was equivalent to a teaspoon of sugar. In 1952, fancy metal containers were created to carry saccharin in your purse. Many were shaped like birds, especially sparrows. By 1958, diabetic sections in grocery stores offered fruits, jellies, and salad dressings sweetened with saccharin or later cyclamates. The first diet sodas became available. Products were labeled as diet and marketed for weight loss.

During World War II Monsanto Chemical advertised its support for the war with metals, plastics, ammunition, and textiles. In the following decade tranquilizers like Miltown, Valium, and Librium became household names. Prescriptions were suggested for those adjusting to suburban lifestyles. In 1957, Monsanto installed the Home of the Future at Disneyland. It used plastics in construction. Kitchens and bathrooms had showroom freshness and sparkle. By 1959, when it was removed it had had 20 million visitors.

Saccharin was not suitable in baked goods as it changes when heated, but worked well in beverages. Cyclamate was discovered by Michael Sveda at University of Illinois in 1937. It was patented, purchased by Dupont, sold to Abbott Laboratories in 1947 and approved by FDA in 1951. Abbott produced the first cookbook for it in 1952. Cyclamates began to appear as Sucaryl in the 1950s. Cyclamates were thirty to fifty times sweeter than sugar, non-caloric, and did not have the bitter after taste of saccharin. And it was better suited to baking or boiling. Abbott’s Sucaryl was a liquid that worked well with cooking. But cyclamates failed to produce the same taste and texture as sugar. Recipes had to be adjusted.

In the 1960s and 70s, control over food consumption was emphasized by diet organizations like Weight Watchers. Canned fruits were developed in the 1820s but became readily available in the 1920s. After WWII, they were inexpensive and abundant. In 1952 Flotill Canning Company launched Tasti-Diet, the first successful diet canned fruit. It used saccharin with pectin to avoid the after taste. Flotill was founded by Tillie Lewis in 1934. By 1947, Flotill was the largest independent food processor west of the Mississippi. Lewis was an excellent promoter. Her success encouraged others to develop diet products.

Diet products were featured on the women’s page in newspapers. Giants like Dole and Libby had low-calorie fruit products but Diet Delight, a co-op of California Canners and Growers, captured 30% market share between 1960 and ‘68 using Abbott’s cyclamates.

In the 1950s most low calorie sweeteners were used by diabetics; by 1970 75% of the US population was using artificial sweeteners. Although there were three producers, Abbott was the leader with Sucaryl bottles for consumers and bulk sales to manufacturers. Other suppliers were Monsanto and Pfizer. Over 400 food manufacturers had products containing cyclamates. It was considered the Sucaryl “honeymoon.” By 1953, the standard ratio for cyclamates to saccharin in diet soda was 10:1 with each providing 50% of the sweetening. Abbott had exclusive rights to cyclamates until the mid ‘60s. Between 1963 and 1967, US consumption increased from 6 MM to 18 MM lb.

Weight Watchers in particular emphasized the no sugar diet. TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) was founded in Milwaukee in 1948. Sweet’N Low, owned by Cumberland Packing Co., appeared in 1958 with cyclamate but changed to saccharin in 1969.

Circumstances changed in 1969 when FDA banned cyclamates under the Delaney Clause of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which prohibited use of cancer causing substances in food. Rats fed heavy doses had increased risk of cancer. Later studies found cyclamates no more harmful than saccharin. Nor are they less healthful than aspartame or sucralose.

As data began to accumulate on the safety of cyclamates, the Calorie Control Council, an organization of saccharin producers and users, published a pamphlet “Cyclamate Sweeteners in the Human Diet: A Scientific Evaluation.” With cyclamates no longer available, soda companies turned to saccharin. The success of cyclamates resulted in additional research.

In 1977, FDA attempted to ban saccharin after lab work showed potential to cause cancer. Members of Congress were flooded with letters objecting. The opposition was headed by the Calorie Control Council which published ads with mailing addresses for FDA and Congress. The FDA agreed to compromise with a cancer warning label. Meanwhile Canada banned saccharin while keeping cyclamates. In 1976 saccharin was a $2B industry with 7 MM lb produced for domestic consumption. Diet Rite Cola, Diet Pepsi, and Diet 7-Up were often cited by consumers.

Between 1975 and 1984, American consumption increased by 150%. In 1965, Nutrasweet aspartame was discovered by James Schlatter at GD Searle. It was 200 times sweeter than sugar and calorie free. In 1977 Searle hired a former Congressman, presidential aide, and Secretary of Defense. Donald Rumsfeld was CEO, Firestone executive James Denny was CFO, and Bob Shapiro was president. Monsanto purchased Searle’s Nutrasweet division in 1985. It was the dominant sweetener until Splenda became available in the late 1990s. It was marketed skillfully as safe and natural (from two amino acids) and associated with choice, pleasure and health. It was low calorie and tasted like sugar. And it enhanced other flavors. By 1985 consumption was 800MM lb/yr. In 1990 1200 products contained Nutrasweet. Diet Coke was selling as well as Coke.

In 1984, after FDA approval (and much controversy) Searle mailed Nutrasweet gumballs to 5 million homes. The blue Equal packets became available in 1985. They put the Nutrasweet logo on products containing it. That allowed ads for products consumers could not buy.

In 1972, sugar was described as a quiet killer that contributed to obesity, heard disease, diabetes, ulcers and other health issues. Use of Nutrasweet meshed with concerns about sugar. Opposition arose from both sides. The Nutrasweet patent expired in 1992. Market share continued to hover at 90 to 95%. Nevertheless, sugar consumption continued to increase–from 118.1 lb in 1975 to 126.8 lb/person in 1984.

McNeal division of Johnson & Johnson developed Splenda. In 2004 they were sued by Equal for ads claiming Splenda was made from sugar. It is a distinctly man-made sugar derivative. J&J settled in 2007 without admitting guilt. Use of sweeteners increased from 163MM Americans in 1991 to 194MM in 2007. Use of Sweet’N Low declined 12% from 2004 to 2007; Equal declined 93%. Splenda sales grew from 119MM lb to 226MM lb annually. At this writing Stevia an extract from the leaves of the stevia plant was new. Acesulfame K or Ace K is a new sweetener discovered in Germany in 1968 and approved by FDA in 1988. It is not described in the book.

This is an excellent overview of synthetic sweeteners and their history. References. Index.


Around 1963 I discovered that sugar made me dizzy. I stopped adding sugar to coffee but black coffee tasted too bitter so I only had café con leche (latte). As time went by the bitter taste became acceptable and now I drink coffee black. I did experiment occasionally with artificial sweeteners including Splenda and stevia but natural no sugar is the best. Want sweet? Eat some fruit.

Packaged Stevia often has a bit of stevia and lots of chemicals. Read the labels!

The Captain