Too much sugar will make you fat, but too much artificial sweetener will … do what exactly? Kill you? Make you thinner? Or have absolutely no effect at all?
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to ban cyclamate, the first artificial sweetener prohibited in the U.S., and yet scientists still haven’t reached a consensus about how safe (or harmful) artificial sweeteners may be. Shouldn’t we have figured this out by now?
The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered in 1879 when Constantin Fahlberg, a Johns Hopkins University scientist working on coal-tar derivatives, noticed a substance on his hands and arms that tasted sweet. No one knows why Fahlberg decided to lick an unknown substance off his body, but it’s a good thing he did.
Despite an early attempt to ban the substance in 1911 – skeptical scientists said it was an “adulterant” that changed the makeup of food – saccharin grew in popularity, and was used to sweeten foods during sugar rationings in World Wars I and II. Though it is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories, saccharin leaves an unpleasant metallic aftertaste.
So when cyclamate came on the market in 1951, food and beverage companies jumped at the chance to sweeten their products with something that tasted more natural. By 1968, Americans were consuming more than 17 million pounds of the calorie-free substance a year in snack foods, canned fruit and soft drinks like Tab and Diet Pepsi.
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