Sweeteners – The curious discovery of saccharine, cyclamate and aspartame

Do you ever stop for a coffee during the day and ask for the waiter or waitress if they have some sugar? They come with their nice smile and place a container with colourful bags of different sugars and sweeteners next to you and they leave you there tormented by the choice – should you go for brown sugar, honey or for some sweeteners? What are sweeteners after all and who invented them?

That is a quite nice question because most of the discoveries in some sweeteners have happened by chance, while scientist where looking for something else.

Sweeteners have come to rise in the food market as replacers for sucrose. Some of them are non-nutritive and don’t need to be used in high quantities since they have higher sweetness than sucrose (Wagoner et al., 2018).

Some of the most famous sweeteners such as saccharine and aspartame have been discovered by chance in laboratories where it was still allowed to smoke cigarettes and where the operators and scientists used to work without PPE (personal protection equipment) such as gloves and it was common use not to wash their hands prior to a meal.

Nowadays such behaviour would be highly discouraged and not recommended given the quantities of toxic compounds that scientists work with but back in the time when sweeteners were discovered, this was a serendipitous act of misconduct in the lab.

Saccharine

Saccharine is ~375 times sweeter than sucrose and was discovered in 1897 in John Hopkins University by Constantine Fahlberg who was working in the lab for substitution products of coal tar. All of his scientific discoveries by then did not have any commercial value and he used to work in the lab until late –as most of our scientists fellow still do – thus skipping meals. One day, as hunger took over, he rushed out of the lab without washing his hands and realised that the bread that he was eating tasted very sweet. He then drank some water and rinsed his moustache with a napkin which tasted sweet again. He soon realised that he was the source of the sweetness and proceeded to lick his fingers to double check. Sweetness came back again so he rushed once again to the lab and tasted the content of the beakers he was working with – which is highly dangerous by the way – It turns out that one of the beakers contained a non-purified solution of saccharine (aka benzoic sulfimide). He then purified it and studied its chemical structure in order to be able to reproduce it in lab once again and commercialise it.

Cyclamate

Another example of lab misconduct that lead to a sweetener is the discovery of Cyclamate in 1937. Michael Sveda was a PhD student at the University of Illinois and used to smoke inside of the lab –again, very wrong – . One day, while smoking, after brushing off some tobacco from his lips, he tasted something sweet. He tasted each beaker he has been working with and found that he had discovered a new sweetener (cyclamate). Cyclamate is 30 to 40 times sweeter than sucrose and was banned by the FDA in USA in 1969.

Aspartame

Same story happened for the discovery of Aspartame which is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. James Schlatter was working in the labs of G.D. Searle & Co in order to find a compound to treat gastric ulcers. He accidentally licked his finger – he wasn’t using gloves most probably, again, wrong! – by picking a paper and realised that it was sweet. He then tracked down the container where the sweetness could have come from and found that it came from crystallised aspartyl-phenylanaline methyl esters. He knew that the beaker he was tasting the compound from did not contain anything harmful and that gave him the confidence to go on and lick his fingers again. He then called the compound Aspartame. It is like saccharine and is normally used in food products, especially for beverages.

References and suggested reads:

  1. Cardoso, P., & Bolini, H. M. A. (2008). Descriptive profile of peach nectar sweetened with sucrose and different sweeteners. Journal of Sensory Studies, 23, 804– 816.
  2. Lyn O’Brien-Nabors (2011). Alternative Sweeteners. CRC Press. pp. 226–227. ISBN 978-1-4398-4614-8.
  3. Wagoner, TB, McCain, HR, Foegeding, EA, Drake, MA. Food texture and sweetener type modify sweetness perception in whey protein‐based model foods. J Sens Stud. 2018; 33:e12333.

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