Sugar Substitutes: Saccharin

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Sugar Subsitutes: 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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