Sugar Substitutes: Saccharin

This week we’ll take a look at saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener on the market. It’s pretty amazing that there are so many different types of sweeteners available to us, yet they’re all slightly different and, in my opinion, they don’t quite have the taste of cane sugar. We humans obviously have a sweet tooth; most of us are born with a taste for something sweet. Eating sugar releases serotonin, a chemical that helps us to relax, and endorphins, those “feel-good” chemicals. Plus, sweet foods just seem to taste good. Some of us never seem to lose our taste for sweets and the more we eat, the more we seem to crave them. Can using nonnutritive sweeteners help? Perhaps.


What is saccharin?
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered saccharin way back in 1879. You can imagine the excitement of food manufacturers and people with diabetes at the time. Even Theodore Roosevelt got in on the excitement, forming a regulatory committee to essentially “approve” the sweetener for human consumption. Saccharin was widely used during the two World Wars when there was a sugar shortage; after World War II, the popularity of saccharin grew when Americans became more focused on weight control. Even more than 100 years after its discovery, saccharin is still used today, although it now has quite a bit of competition from other sweeteners.

Saccharin, which in the lab is known as “ortho-sulfobenzoic acid imide,” is a white, crystalline powder that is 300–500 time sweeter than regular sugar. It’s not metabolized by the body, so it’s excreted in the same form it is ingested. Saccharin is heat-stable, making it acceptable for cooking and baking, it contains no calories or carbohydrate, and it doesn’t promote tooth decay. Saccharin has been widely used in number of foods, candies, gum, beverages, vitamins, and pharmaceutical products. (Anyone remember TaB, one of the first diet sodas that was introduced in 1963?)

What are the concerns about consuming saccharin?
Saccharin is probably one of the most studied ingredients in our food supply. Despite the extensive research that it’s undergone, this sweetener has also been one of the most controversial. The controversy stems from the incidence of bladder cancer in male rats who were fed high doses of saccharin. Other animal studies have linked the ingestion of saccharin to uterine and ovarian cancer, as well. Studies of saccharin use in humans have been “inconsistent,” according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

In 1977, the FDA proposed ban against saccharin use but Congress intervened and rather than ban the sweetener, required that a warning label be added to products containing saccharin. This warning was revoked in 2000 by Congress and a bill was signed by President Clinton to “delist” saccharin after the Environmental Protection Agency decided that saccharin was safe. Products containing saccharin no longer need to carry the warning label. The National Cancer Institute reports that no human studies have found saccharin to be carcinogenic, and that the mechanism that causes bladder cancer in rats doesn’t exist in humans.

Today, many health agencies believe saccharin to be safe for use in the general population, including children and pregnant and lactating women. This sweetener is used in more than 100 countries as a sweetening agent.

How much saccharin is safe to use?
The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for saccharin is 5 milligrams per kilogram body weight. To give some perspective, that means that a 150-pound adult could safely consume 340 milligrams of saccharin every day over his lifetime without any adverse effects. If you’re still a TaB drinker, there are 95 milligrams of saccharin in a 12-ounce can, so that means the 150-pound person could safely drink roughly 3.6 cans of TaB per day. A typical packet of saccharin sweetener contains about 36 milligrams of saccharin; therefore, that 150-pound adult could safely consume nine of these packets daily.

As I mentioned, saccharin is not as popular as it once was, thanks to the newer nonnutritive sweeteners that are on the market, but I suspect there’s still a loyal fan base. Any saccharin lovers out there?

What works when it comes to weight loss, and what’s better avoided? Bookmark and tune in tomorrow to learn more from Type 2 diabetes veteran Martha Zimmer.

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  • Davis Family

    That would be me. Cheapest, tastes fine in coffee ; risks were always overblown.

  • disqus_KRXizGW7cp

    Me Too; no after-taste; doesn’t seem to affect my thinking power.

  • Christopher Curcio

    My sweetener of choice. Though I love stevia, most stevia manufacturers add maltodextrin. I consume less than six packets a day. I use it mixed with lemon juice and water. This is how I stay hydrated. It’s such a relief knowing that I’m not harming myself by using it. I’m enormously grateful for this article. Many thanks!

  • This is my sweetener of choice for drinks, baking, desserts etc. I just crush the little tablets for cakes etc and just keep tasting the mix and adding crushed tablets til it’s sweet enough (I do the same with cookie dough as well). Saccharin also has a fond familial nostalgia for me too – I vividly recall sneaking a couple of my Uncle’s saccharin tablets as a child whenever I was at his house and enjoying the lasting sweetness! (He still has the same number of them in his coffee all these years later, of the same brand!) I actually prefer the taste of saccharin to sugar, since it lasts longer on the palate, leaves no stickiness, and is just a more interesting flavour in my opinion. I have diabetes on both sides of my family, and am pre-diabetic myself, but this year my HbA1C test was normal because I’ve cut out the sugar and most of the other carbs bar healthy vegetables, berries etc. I feel great and am losing weight, and my blood glucose stays stable at between 5-6 mmols (90-108mg/dl) where it used to be often around 13mmols (234). Saccharin and low carb baking recipes have really helped me stay on track and I’m not sure I could do without sweet treats! I’m not concerned about the safety of it really since it’s been around long enough in my opinion for any potential major health-hazards to have been flagged by now. Millions of people use it every day around the world and I suspect it poses much less of a health risk to them than the sugar they’re replacing! I’m such a fan I even bought a cute little saccharin bowl from some former era which looks like a little sugar bowl but has saccharin written on the lid and “sweeter than sugar!” written on the side in gold letters!