The ancient Romans would boil grape juice in lead pots to produce a sugar syrup concentrate called sapa. This syrup was used to sweeten wine and preserve fruit. It is likely that lead acetate leached into the sapa from the pots, causing lead poisoning in those who consumed it.
There are some well-known lead acetate casualties. Pope Clement II died in October 1047, and a toxicology examination of his remains conducted in the mid-20th century confirmed centuries-old rumors that he had been poisoned with lead sugar. In 1787, painter Albert Christoph Dies swallowed less than an ounce of lead acetate; his eventual neurological recovery was slow and incomplete. And though the use of lead acetate as a sweetener was already illegal at the time, Beethoven may have died of lead poisoning caused by wines accordingly adulterated.
In 1878, in rented lab space at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a young chemist, Constantin Fahlberg, was running tests on compound purities and also attempting to develop coal tar derivatives – not particularly exciting work. One evening, after returning home to eat dinner – and apparently not washing his hands – Fahlberg noticed that the bread roll he had just chewed and swallowed tasted very sweet. After determining that the roll was not baked to be sweet, he came to the conclusion that some substance he spilled in the lab had remained on his hands, and was responsible for the taste.
He just didn’t know which of the day’s chemicals was responsible.
Fahlberg went back to the lab and started tasting residues (yuck). He eventually discovered the source of the sweetness: a beaker filled with sulfobenzoic acid, phosphorus chloride, and ammonia. This deadly sounding cocktail had boiled over earlier in the day, creating benzoic sulfinide.
Fahlberg quickly penned a paper describing the compound and the methods of creating it. Published in 1879, the paper listed both Fahlberg and another chemist in the lab, Ira Remsen, as the creators. However, in 1886, after realizing the compound’s massive commercial potential, Fahlberg changed his mind, patented the substance – which he called Saccharin – and listed himself as the sole creative mind behind it.
Thus was born the first seemingly safe, cheap, and artificial alternative to sugar sweeteners.
Saccharin, advertised as a non-fattening alternative to sugar, was fairly successful at first, though it wouldn’t be until the sugar shortages in WWI that it became a widespread hit.
The substance’s purported co-discoverer, Remsen, was by then the President of Johns Hopkins University; he often said of his former collaborator, “Fahlberg is a scoundrel. It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with his.”
Saccharin’s success almost was derailed in the 1970s, when several clinical studies – later shown to be flawed – alleged that it caused bladder cancer in lab rats and, by faulty extrapolation, in primates and humans. Even though the National Academy of Sciences published a meta-analysis in 1974 showing that Saccharin was harmless, the damage in the court of public opinion was widespread and entrenched; thus followed the federal Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977, which didn’t ban the sweetener outright in the U.S., but required package labeling that read, “use of this product may be hazardous to your health, as this product contains Saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
It wasn’t until 2000 that Saccharin was removed from U.S. National Toxicology Program’s list of substances that cause cancer. The next year, both the state of California and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed it from their list of cancer causing agents. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency concurred, stating that “Saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.”
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