As diabetics are advised to cut down on their sugar intake, they have appealed to science for help in finding an artificial sweetener. Saccharin, one of the oldest, has been on shelves for many years, sweetening candy, cookies, soft drinks and other foods.
Saccharin was discovered accidentally in 1879 by Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, researchers at Johns Hopkins University. They were experimenting with toluene and discovered its sweetness while eating shortly thereafter--they had not washed it all off their hands.
Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar, which means only a little is needed for sweetening. However, like most artificial sweeteners, it has an unpleasant, bitter aftertaste. It is stable when heated, which means it is good for cooking. It also passes through the body without having any impact on the blood sugar levels, making it ideal for diabetics. It is a complex mix of elements such as calcium, sodium, hydrogen and oxygen, all combining to make the substance.
In the middle 1970s, a great controversy arose over saccharin: was it a cancer-causing agent? A now infamous study with rats made a case for saccharin as a carcinogen. A debate had gone back and forth for years over the safety of saccharin, but this study prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to put warning labels on all products containing the substance.
Although these fears have not been borne out by further studies, the controversy did prompt the scientific community to look for other, safer forms of artificial sweeteners. One notable success was aspartame, which has been popular for about 20 years. The most recent artificial sweetener to hit the market has been sucralose, often carrying the Splenda brand name. These sweeteners do not have as much aftertaste as saccharin and sucralose is also stable when heated.
Saccharin is still widely used, often with other artificial sweeteners, and they work to cancel out each other's weaknesses. Since the studies have not confirmed a carcinogenic link with saccharin, the warning labels have been removed. Saccharin is still valuable in helping diabetics eat a more palatable diet, without harming their health.