The Trouble with Sweet: Part III Saccharin – “The Pink Stuff”

November 15, 2007

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part III Saccharin – “The Pink Stuff” 

 Competency # 11 Sugar               Reference: Sweet Deception by Dr. Mercola 

 We’ve talked glucose (our bodies gasoline), sucrose (table sugar and over a hundred pounds a year), fructose (natural sugar in fruit but problematic in purer forms and laced with reactive, destructive compounds).  Now let’s go artificial with sweet and figure out the rest of the puzzle. We adore the flavor sweet.  Our bodies long for it.  We give it wrapped up in nice paper as gifts.  We put it out in bowls at our desks to welcome people and cheer them up.  No wonder we’ve put lots of creative energy into finding ways to make the flavor sweet without the consequences of weight gain.  Artificial sweeteners aren’t exactly new.  

Saccharin goes back to the 1879 and our first established research hospital, Johns Hopkins University.  Of the first 5 doctors hired to do research and teach at our first national medical school, Dr. Remsen hired a young, budding research named Constantine Fahlberg to study the chemical toluene.  Falhberg was “messing around” in the lab and spilled one of his samples.  That night, at dinner, he noticed his food tasted oddly sweet.  Obviously, this was still the era of not washing hands often.  He traced back the flavor to his spilled chemical and called it saccharin, as it was sweet just like “saccharides” the name for all sugars.  

Falhlberg snuck off and patented saccharin in 1894, and made a fortune selling the stuff.  Much to Remsen’s disgust, he didn’t share with his mentor or his institution. The production of saccharin marked the epoch of science in universities being mixed with a desire to develop products for commercial use.  The company, Monsanto, was founded to market saccharin in 1901.  Another small obscure company called Coca Cola started using it in 1907 to make sweet-flavored colas with no sugar in them.  An industry was born of sweetened drinks with no consequences of weight gain.  

Or so we thought.  When the invention of products is mixed with commercial gain, one would expect scrutiny for safety to go hand in hand.  One would assume… well, don’t. That was a hundred years ago.  We’ve had sweetened drinks for a hundred years.  Saccharin has a very long history in the marketplace.  

This is where it gets interesting and teaches us how food safety works in America.  Saccharin was on the market before the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic act was passed in 1958.  It was grandfathered in because it was “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).   BUT, the Delaney Clause in the act called for a zero tolerance for any chemical found to cause cancer in animal testing.  So, in 1969 a Canadian researcher found that saccharin causes bladder cancer in lab rats.  50%!  Oops.  Canada banned saccharin.  

There was a huge public uproar.  Congress intervenes and says saccharin can be sold if it has a warning label.  Then, in 1991, long-term studies in humans showed very minor efforts towards cancer.  Another study showed that lab rats have a different metabolism that makes them more at risk for bladder cancer. President Clinton (the male version) signed an exception allowing saccharin to be used without the warning label.  The Delaney clause was fudged to suggest that it didn’t cause a “major” risk.  Instead of “any risk”, “major risk” was added. And the warning label could come off.  This is all because we, the consuming public, demand the flavor sweet and want it with no consequences of weight gain.  

So, pink packets are back in the restaurants. It’s only been in the last few years that we have discovered that all sweeteners create habits in us of wanting more and more sweet, and of having less and less plain water.  In fact this column has covered the evidence that shows the correlation between drinking diet sodas and metabolic syndrome.  We don’t know all the details, but our taste receptors do have connections to our internal signaling and tasting sweet sets off some of the same reactions as just plain eating sugar. 

 That’s a hot area of research still to be completely sorted out.  Stay tuned.  Next week, we will cover the “Blue Stuff” and then the “Yellow Stuff”.  Finally, at the end, hope is coming. As for saccharin, no obvious track record of ”major risk” cancers, overt allergic reactions, no obvious poisoning, even in large doses.  With some reluctance, I’ll state I can’t find much other evidence that saccharin is dangerous.  It’s just not a natural substance.   The early hints that your brain is confused by artificial sweeteners, or your biome in your gut get altered are alarming. These are new ideas that need to be followed.

 Points to take away:  1.  Saccharin is an artificial chemical but may be the safest of the sweeteners that are chemically made.  2.  We need to learn about food safety as one of our skills of self-care.   3.  Our addiction to sweet is what we have to personally own.  4.  Our political and economic systems aren’t perfect, and we all need to be aware and speak out to give meaningful voice to reforming it. 

WWW.  What Will Work for me.  Saccharin tastes lousy.  It has a “hang to it”, to quote my spouse.  But it is sweet.  And it has a long record of use without the emergence of “major risk” of toxicity yet.  It’s the habit of sweet that probably is the problem.  And my innocence towards the assumption that our food supply is safe is gone.  I now see our food safety system as suspect to manipulation and political pressure.  It’s all about market demand and relative risk.  I’m trying out having my tea less sweet.  So far, not succeeding.  I’m eager to explore alternatives.

The column written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)