Artificial sweetener is the term used to describe a number of chemical products that are used to sweeten foods and beverages in place of caloric sweeteners such as corn syrup or sucrose. In the United States, there have been four common artificial sweeteners of which three are currently on the market: (1) saccharin, (2) cyclamates, (3) aspartame, and (4) sucralose. The last two are more commonly known by their brand names NutraSweet and Splenda. Statistics from 2007 revealed that 45% of American households regularly purchase artificially sweetened products. These numbers have grown since artificial sweetener became an ingredient in manufactured food and beverage products, often sold as a “diet” or “low-calorie” option, first in the 1950s. Between 1991 and 2007 alone, the total number of Americans using artificially sweetened foods went up from 101 to 194 million (ICIS Chemical Business, 2009). This entry provides an overview of the development and the uses of the most popular artificial sweeteners in the United States.
Invented at Johns Hopkins University in 1879, saccharin was first manufactured in Germany, and it eventually became one of the first three products to be produced by the new chemical company Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri. It was not sold to the public directly but rather entered the U.S. food supply through carbonated beverages. Its sweetening power, roughly 200 times that of sucrose, made it a preferable substitute for many soda producers, especially given the volatile market for sugar during the era. Yet substituting an unknown chemical for sugar—widely considered an important food for health—proved unwise. When Progressive Era reformers passed Food and Drug legislation early in the new century, saccharin, while not banned directly, was revealed to consumers as an unsavory substitute. Manufacturers who had not used it wasted little time in describing the product to consumers through newspaper advertisements as an adulterant added by devious business people likely to “sicken” you.
Until World War II, saccharin remained on the market available in drug stores in pill form and was used primarily by diabetics or those whose doctors told them to adopt calorie-restricted diets. During World War II, housewives attempting to sweeten products with limited sugar ration coupons began to experiment with the substance. After the war, experimentation also took place, especially in California, by individuals looking for new ways to slim down as was increasingly the fashion among the white middle class.
Coinciding with a new era of home-grown experiments with saccharin was the discovery, development, and eventual Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the second artificial sweetener, sodium cyclamate. Found, like saccharin, by accident in a laboratory, this time at the University of Illinois, sodium cyclamate or simply “cyclamate” was patented by DuPont and in 1947 was sold to Abbott Laboratories. It was Abbott that transformed the second artificial sweetener into the first to be professionally marketed. This transformed the attitude Americans had toward artificial sweeteners and made artificially sweetened products mainstays in many American households. By marketing directly to consumers, developing cookbooks to showcase methods of cooking with cyclamate, and cobranding their products with food manufacturers, Abbott built a strong market in spite of the preexisting reservations about the safety and honesty of artificial sweeteners.
Abbott's first cookbook for home cooks was produced in 1952 and distributed free through doctors, pharmacists, and nutritionists. Other how-to guides quickly followed, many produced by female entrepreneurs who saw a market opportunity in helping others “decalorize” the family meal. These cookbooks merged with those touting the sweetening properties of saccharin (“pure gold” with “infinite possibilities”) to create a market environment that allowed manufactured products containing artificial sweeteners to succeed. But it was the introduction of cyclamates, especially, into manufactured foods that created the U.S. diet industry, one heavily dependent on artificial sweeteners. At the same time, manufactured products provided consumers with more opportunities to learn about “diet” sweeteners and to reconsider their previous connotations as second-rate sugar substitutes suitable for diabetics only. They also, by their very ubiquity under trusted brand names, helped relax FDA regulations on artificial sweeteners.
In 1951, Richmond Chase, a canning cooperative in northern California, began experimenting with sodium cyclamate in its line of canned fruits. Abbott supplied their sweetener free of charge, assisted with designing machines for adding it to cans on assembly lines, shared proprietary market research demonstrating that American women were increasingly concerned about weight gain and seeking weight loss, and assured Richmond Chase of the substitute's safety. The diet product line that emerged, “Diet Delight,” along with Tillie Lewis's “Tasti-Diet,” created for the first time a marketplace in which everyday products (jellies, syrups, desserts, and sodas) were sold in both regular and diet versions. In exchange for the product and data, Richmond Chase agreed to meet with members of the FDA's National Research Council when it was considering cyclamates’ regulation. As a result, in the late 1950s, the National Research Council concluded that cyclamate could be marketed to anyone who determined that they “must restrict their intake of sugar.” Artificial sweeteners’ emergence in the U.S. market as a “diet” product with little federal regulation, as opposed to Europe, is in large part due to this early partnership between pharmaceutical and food-manufacturing companies.
The first antisweetener controversy to emerge after the Progressive Era took place in 1969 when the FDA suddenly banned cyclamates after studies revealed that excessive amounts consumed could lead to an elevated risk of cancer in laboratory animals. Yet in spite of ample press coverage about the possible dangers of consumption, and consumers’ largely quick compliance with the ban (even excess supplies people had at home were often returned to markets indicating a general fear of ingestion), the number of Americans using artificial sweeteners continued to grow. Switching their loyalties to saccharin, American consumption reached a new high by 1970 when 75% of the population was found to be consuming saccharin.
This may help explain the very different reaction that many Americans had to the FDA's announcement of its intent to ban saccharin in 1977. Hundreds of thousands wrote in protest, demanding that saccharin-sweetened products remain on the shelf. Some felt that it was essential for their diets and that without saccharin they would gain weight. Others reasoned that there were far more serious causes of cancer such as polluted water and second-hand cigarette smoke and that those issues should be addressed before one worried about the risk of consuming the equivalent of a bathtub of saccharin soda every day. Still others simply rejected the government's right to limit consumer choice. Such arguments were undoubtedly influenced by the Calorie Control Council's active media campaign. A consortium of saccharin's manufacturers and producers of products containing saccharin, the Calorie Control Council responded quickly to the FDA's announcement by enabling consumers to clip protest “coupons” from the newspaper and mail them to legislators. Other factors likely influenced such advocacy as well. By 1977, saccharin had become a mainstay in the Weight Watchers’ new diet plan. Many who wrote specifically demanded continued access to the organization's saccharin-sweetened sodas and desserts. Saccharin-sweetened diet sodas had also become far more popular than they were a decade before. After several delays, the discussion of the ban was dropped in the early 1980s.
In 1984, Searle Pharmaceuticals sent a package of gumballs to roughly 5 million American homes. Sweetened by aspartame, a methyl ester of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, the gumballs introduced a product called NutraSweet that would become the most popular artificial sweetener ever. Discovered first in 1965 by accident, like the sweeteners before it, this one differed in the cohesion of its research and marketing plan. Searle Pharmaceuticals had concentrated on NutraSweet for over a decade prior to introducing it into gumballs and on supermarket shelves. In 1977, when it appeared that the FDA might ban saccharin, they hired former congressman and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld as CEO (chief executive officer), along with a successful corporate executive and lawyer as CFO (chief financial officer) and president. The addition of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the nation's top advertisement firms, gave NutraSweet a unique advantage. The gumball campaign, accompanied by a red and white swirl placed on products containing NutraSweet, and a comprehensive promotional campaign direct to consumers contributed to the products’ overwhelming success. Advertising messages, claiming that the product was “just like fruit” and “seems too good to be true,” positioned NutraSweet, in the words of one of its promoters, as showing that “you can have pleasure without paying the price.”
By 1985, U.S. consumers were ingesting roughly 800 million pounds of aspartame a year, and more than 1,200 products containing NutraSweet sat on grocery store shelves. At the same time, websites, books, and even a documentary emerged describing “NutraSweet syndrome,” a mixture of ailments ranging from headaches to vision loss to fatigue and seizures, attributed by their sufferers to ingesting large amounts of the product. Such claims have never been proven. Still, distrust of NutraSweet continues. Unease about the chemical impact on users, ongoing fears that artificial sweeteners contribute to cancer, and aspartame's unusual regulatory history in which President Ronald Reagan replaced the FDA's chief precisely when Searle gained approval have contributed to such unease.
Today the most popular artificial sweetener is sucralose, brand name Splenda, which like aspartame, saccharin, and cyclamates is calorie free and much sweeter per part than table sugar. In 1999, its advertising campaign “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar” touted the new sweetener as uniquely similar to sucrose in its origins. The similarity is minimal; while sucralose begins with the sucrose molecule, it undergoes a molecule replacement and an addition of chlorine that leaves it human-made in form and function. Merisant, maker of the table-top aspartame “Equal,” argued the same in 2004, when it sued McNeil pharmaceuticals under the Lanham Act for misleading advertising. In 2007, the case was settled with damages to the plaintiff, but without insistence that McNeil correct any false perception on the part of consumers.
Two additional artificial sweeteners can be found in today's marketplace. The first two, neotame and acesulfame potassium, are infrequently used in food and beverages in the United States.
It is Stevia, a sugar substitute produced from the crushed leaves of the stevia plant, however, that has become the most popular current alternative to saccharin, aspartame, or sucralose for many consumers in the United States. Stevia has ancient origins but was first widely used as a sweetener in foods and beverages in Japan in the 1970s. In the United States, it has gained market share particularly since its FDA approval in 2009, and it is now commonly available as a stand-alone product and as an ingredient in prepared foods and beverages. Its plant origins, combined with an increasing distrust on the part of consumers of artificial sweeteners, has made Stevia desirable to those who want low- or no-calorie sweet foods and beverages and to those who perceive the product as more healthy. Stevia's market share has been further bolstered by the U.S. popular culture, in which a number of authors in recent years have urged consumers to eat whole, local, organic, or slow food, and in which discomfort about artificial sweeteners’ negative health impact continue to arise.
A 2005 study undertaken by the University of Texas at San Antonio illustrated that increased consumption of artificial sweeteners correlated to increased weight gain among subjects in a study. While limited in the population studied and in the long-term impact assessed, the study was widely featured in newspapers and popular women's magazines. In spite of artificial sweeteners’ continued popularity, concerns about its efficacy are also gaining traction.
Today, the artificial sweetener market continues to be strong with an estimated $1.5 billion in sales per year. Yet in the U.S. marketplace, future low-calorie sweetener innovations will likely come in areas of natural alternatives or new approaches to sweetening altogether, given the difficulty of bringing new artificial sweeteners to market and increasing consumer concerns. One study under way explores whether our taste receptors can be altered to make our perception of sweetness more intense. If successful, this would diminish the need for artificial sweeteners since small amounts of natural sweeteners (with fewer calories) would successfully sweeten foods and beverages.
While it is difficult to imagine that artificial sweeteners will disappear from our food, especially given its long-touted claim that consumers can have sweet pleasure without caloric consequence, their age of ascendency may be behind us.
See also Diabetes; High-Fructose Corn Syrup; Obesity Epidemic
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