How Things Work: Artificial sweeteners have varied history

Credit: Photo illustration by Jennifer Coloma/Operations Manager Credit: Photo illustration by Jennifer Coloma/Operations Manager

Artificial sweeteners can be found in many college staples, from diet sodas and low-fat yogurts to canned fruit and chewing gum. Their popularity is due in part to their advantage over regular sugar: They can greatly sweeten foods while avoiding the calories sugar adds. However, they are also the subject of controversy because of their potentially unhealthy effects.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are five widely used artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA; these are called intense sweeteners because of their capability to sweeten foods several times more intensely than regular sugar.

This characteristic of artificial sweeteners can be a pitfall for students wanting a healthy diet, said Paula Martin, a nutritionist at Carnegie Mellon. “Artificial sweeteners [are] many or a hundred times sweeter than naturally occurring sweeteners,” Martin explained. “This may change a person’s taste preference to only accept extremely sweet-tasting foods and thus reduce enjoyment of naturally sweetened foods like vegetables, fruits, and grains.”

According to Time magazine, the first artificial sweetener was discovered in 1879 by Johns Hopkins University scientist Constantin Fahlberg. He noticed that his food tasted especially sweet when he ate it with his hands after working on finding interesting uses for coal tar. After some research, Fahlberg was able to isolate the compound responsible for the sweet taste: saccharin. Soon after its discovery, some scientists tried to ban the use of saccharin in 1911 because they believed it was an adulterant that altered food substances.

Saccharin was linked to cancer in rats in 1977, and although the FDA couldn’t ban the substance, the discovery made it mandatory for substances containing saccharin to carry a warning label. In 2000, saccharin was removed from the government’s list of suspected carcinogens, but the suspicion of its possible harmful side effects still worries many consumers.

The sweetener cyclamate was widely used in the 1950s because it tasted more natural than saccharin and didn’t have a metallic aftertaste. However, in 1969, the government banned cyclamate because of studies linking it to cancer and to the formation of deformities in chicken embryos. Cyclamate is still approved for use in more than 55 countries, including Canada.

The FDA has established an acceptable daily intake for each artificial sweetener, which ranges from five to 50 milligrams per kilogram.

Using artificial sweeteners in baking can lead to interesting consequences, as senior electrical and computing engineering major Rebecca Willmott discovered. She recounted her experience: “I baked a cake with lemon cream icing for someone who couldn’t eat sugar once, and the artificial sweetener reacted with the acid in the lemon juice to create an expanding icing which ended up around [three times] the volume it started at.”

There are alternatives to artificial sweeteners. So-called novel sweeteners are becoming more popular. One of these, called stevia, is commonly prepared by drying stevia plants and extracting the sweetening compounds by a water extraction process.

Other alternatives are natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, and agave nectar. Although natural sweeteners are similar to regular sugar in that they can cause weight gain and tooth decay, many people prefer these because of their unique taste or possible health benefits. Many people consider these natural sweeteners to be safer than artificial sweeteners.

While it is true that no studies have conclusively shown that artificial sweeteners on the market should be banned, other studies — such as those conducted on rats at Purdue University — have suggested a link between consumption of artificial sweeteners and increase in body weight.

Currently, the American Dietetic Association recommends that all types of sweeteners can be enjoyed in moderation “when consumed in a diet that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations.”