The Story of Artificial Sweeteners

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From sugar of lead, we have six sugar substitutes, now that are in common use—stevia, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin. Prof. Ashoka tells us about the invention of these, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Sugar of lead or lead acetate was the very first sugar substitute, widely used by the ancient Romans in their wines and jams. But the study now shows that it is toxic. Famous people, like Pope Clement II in 1047, have even died of lead acetate poisoning. Today, six sugar substitutes are in common use—stevia, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin.

Stevia is extracted from the leaves of stevia plants and has been used as a natural sweetener in South America for centuries. It doesn’t cause blood glucose levels to increase after eating (zero glycemic index) and has zero calories. Hence it is rapidly becoming popular in many countries. A stevia-based sweetener named Truvia was approved in the United States in 2008.

American scientist James M. Schlatter at the G.D. Searle Company discovered aspartame in 1965. He was working on an anti-ulcer drug and accidentally spilled some aspartame on his hand. He then licked his fingers and noticed a sweet taste. In fact, aspartame is about 200 times as sweet as sugar. It is sold as Equal, NutraSweet, and Canderel. It is not very suitable for baking as it breaks down and becomes less sweet when heated.

Sucralose is a chlorinated sugar that is about 600 times as sweet as normal sugar. It was accidentally discovered in 1976 by researchers Leslie Hough and Shashikant Phadnis at Queen Elizabeth College in London. One day Hough told Phadnis to test a chlorinated sugar compound. Phadnis misheard and thought that Hough had asked him to taste it and found the compound to be exceptionally sweet. The product was quickly popular since it remained sweet when heated and could be used for baking and frying. Common brands of sucralose include Splenda, Sugar-Free Natura, Sukrana, SucraPlus, and Nevella.

Saccharin was synthesised in 1879 by chemists Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It was also discovered by accident, reportedly, when Fahlberg noticed a sweet taste on his hand one evening. In 1884 Fahlberg patented and named the compound. He later grew wealthy from his discovery, but never acknowledged Remsen’s role in it. Saccharin first became popular during World War I, when there were sugar shortages. It is 300 – 500 times sweeter than sugar but leaves a bitter or metallic aftertaste. The most popular American brand of saccharine today is Sweet ’N Low.

Serialised from the book, Popular Triumphs of Human Innovation in Everyday Life by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.