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Sodium saccharin, also referred to simple as saccharin, is most commonly known as a widely used artificial sweetener. The compound is thought to be from 300 to 500 times as sweet as conventional sugar, or sucrose. Sodium saccharin can be found in diet soft drinks, syrups, baked goods, ice cream, and other sweet foods and drinks.
Pure saccharin is not water soluble enough to be useful in food items, but its sodium salt contains the properties necessary to make it useful in the production of artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are used by people who want to limit their consumption of sugar and calories but still consume sweet tasting food and drinks. While it is certainly most famously used in food products, sodium saccharin is also used in the chemical and agricultural industries as an aid in the production of herbicides and pesticides. It is also used as part of a solution used to coat metals, such as gold and nickel.
This sweetener was discovered as a derivative of coal tar by Constantin Fahlberg, who was then working at John Hopkins University in the lab of Ira Remsen. Fahlberg discovered the sweet taste and connected it with the chemical compound he had been studying. Shortly thereafter, sodium saccharin was commercialized, though it did not come into popular use until during World War I, when sugar shortages arose. Its modern popularity and place in society during the last 50 years can be traced to its use by dieting consumers who seek sugar free, low calorie sweeteners because of their presumed health benefits.
Although sodium saccharin is odorless, colorless, and has an agreeable sweet taste, it has in the past been controversially identified as a carcinogen. The controversy is not due to the question of whether sodium saccharin should be classified as a carcinogen or not, but whether it is carcinogenic for humans. It has been shown to be a less than significant carcinogen in animals. Carcinogenicity in animals does not necessarily indicate carcinogenicity in humans, so it is best said that sodium saccharin is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
In food products, this sweetener is commonly used in combination with other artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and cyclamate. When used with aspartame, sodium saccharin is useful because it has a longer shelf-life, so the drink will retain its sweetness. In the case of cyclamate, the combination is typically used because each sweetener serves to cover the other's off flavors.