This NBC Learn video, part of a series on "Chance Discoveries" in chemistry, tells the story of three artificial sweeteners -- saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame -- all discovered by lab researchers who failed to completely wash their hands.
Chance Discoveries: Artificial Sweeteners
TOM COSTELLO, reporting:
You see them everywhere: those little pink, blue, and yellow packets of artificial sweeteners. You know they’re hyper-sweet and calorie-free, but you probably don’t know what else the first artificial sweeteners have in common: saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame all owe their discovery to lab workers who didn’t wash their hands.
COSTELLO: Saccharin, the one in the pink packets, was first. 1897. Johns Hopkins University. Graduate student Constantine Fahlberg was working in his professor’s lab, trying to find new uses for derivatives of coal tar, that’s a waste product from processing coal a primary fuel source at the time.
DR. MICHAL MEYER (Editor in Chief, Chemical Heritage): After a hard days work in the chemistry lab, Fahlberg goes home, picks up some bread for his dinner, puts it to his mouth and tastes something very, very sweet.
COSTELLO: 300 times sweeter than sugar, in fact. Because he hadn’t washed his hands properly, he’d literally brought his work home with him. Tracing the taste back to the lab, he did something no one in a chemistry lab should ever do.
MEYER: The only way to figure out what was sweet on his lab bench was literally to taste everything and see what was sweet. So he discovered that he had over boiled a particular beaker. The sweetness came from that.
COSTELLO: Fahlberg had derived a compound from the coal tar called benzoic sulfamide. He named it saccharin, from the Latin word for sugar, and in fact, saw its potential to replace cane sugar.
MEYER: The wonderful thing about artificial sweeteners is that you could produce as much as you wanted to. You weren’t limited by climate, you weren’t limited by storms destroying your crop. You could create it in the laboratory.
COSTELLO: But was it safe to consume what Fahlberg had created? To find out, he did something else no one dealing with chemicals should ever do.
MEYER: Fahlberg took ten grams of saccharin, swallowed it, waited for 24 hours to see what would happen to him and he found that the saccharin had basically gone straight through him and was unmetabolized by his body. He decided saccharin was safe because it had no effect on his body.
COSTELLO: There were between Fahlberg and his professor, Dr. Ira Remsen, some ugly clashes over credit for discovery and development of that substance, before saccharin was finally patented as a sugar substitute, especially good for diabetics. Because it didn’t metabolize, it didn’t affect blood sugar levels. But there wasn’t much of a market for it.
MEYER: It was a new product and it had not a particularly nice after- taste. So if you were used to sugar and you had no problems with sugar, you weren't going to swap it for sugar in most cases. What happens in World War I, there is a sugar shortage. So there is actually a push to replace sugar with saccharin as a way of showing your patriotism. You were saving sugar. So saccharin was used as a sweetener instead.
COSTELLO: Jump ahead several years. 1937. University of Illinois. Graduate student Michael Sveda was trying to synthesize an anti-fever medication.
MEYER: He takes a smoking break and of course, when you are smoking your hands come close to your mouth. And he tasted something very, very sweet.
COSTELLO: Sveda called it cyclamate. Its arrival on the market coincided with the new popularity of low-calorie diet sodas in the 1950s. For years, cyclamate was in high demand and broad use. After tests linked its use to bladder cancer, the FDA banned it from the U.S. market in 1969, although it’s still used in more than 50 other countries. In the U.S., a new artificial sweetener was already in the works. 1965. The labs of pharmaceutical manufacturer G.D. Searle. Company chemist James Schlatter was trying to synthesize a new drug for gastric ulcers.
MEYER: And in another example of chemists who don’t wash their hands, he had a break, he went outside and he tasted something very, very sweet on his hands and this was what became aspartame.
COSTELLO: Aspartame, the one in the blue packets, quickly became the most used artificial sweetener in the food and beverage industry worldwide and still claims the largest share of the artificial sweetener market. As more Americans gain weight and try to lose it, consumption of all artificial sweeteners grows annually.
MEYER: You don’t have to give up your sweet tooth; you can still have as many sweet things as you want, but they will now not give you calories.
COSTELLO: Although new studies suggest they will train our taste buds to prefer the hyper-sweet over natural sugars, like those found in fruit. So that’s the dirt on the hands-on discovery of saccharine, cyclamate and aspartame.
WASHINGTON — New research suggests that diet soft drinks may actually contribute to weight gain. Now, an advocacy group is charging Coca-Cola and PepsiCo with engaging in false advertising.
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