Happy Halloween! On a day when children are going to be loaded with sugar, I thought it would be fun to take a trip into the spooky world of sugar substitutes.
Many sugar substitutes have been marketed to diet-conscious Americans through the years. Saccharin was one of the first sugar substitutes on the market. Dr. Constantine Fahlberg discovered the coal-tar derived substance one evening in the late 1870s after sitting down to dinner without washing his hands. As Fahlberg recounted:
I sat down, broke a piece of bread, and put it to my lips. It tasted unspeakably sweet. I did not ask why it was so, probably because I thought it was some cake or sweetmeat. I rinsed my mouth with water, and dried my mustache with my napkin, when, to my surprise, the napkin tasted sweeter than the bread. Then I was puzzled. . . . It flashed upon me that I was the cause of the sweetness, and I accordingly tasted the end of my thumb, and found that it surpassed any confectionery that I had ever eaten.“The Inventor of Saccharin,” Scientific American, July 17, 1886.
Saccharin did not become popular in the U.S. until World War II when sugar rationing drove people to seek alternatives. It remained popular in the post-war era for diabetics and those who wanted to watch their calories. But saccharin was not a perfect substitute because it had a bitter after taste.1
Enter cyclamate, discovered in 1937 by Michael Svaeda, who, like Fahlberg, did not wash his hands. Svaeda paused in his lab work to light a cigarette and noticed the sweet taste on his lips. Cyclamate is only thirty times sweeter than sugar, while saccharin is 300 times sweeter, but cyclamate had one key advantage – no bitter after taste.2 In 1950, after years of testing, Abbott Laboratories introduced Svaeda’s discovery under the trade name Sucaryl Sodium.3
Abbott Laboratories still exists today. They sell a variety of pharmaceuticals and nutritional products such as Ensure and Pedialyte. In the 1950s, they marketed Sucaryl in solution, tablet, and powdered form. Tablets had to be dissolved in hot water before use. Sucaryl contained a combination of saccharin and cyclamate. Scientists found that a small amount of cyclamate masked the bitter taste of saccharin, allowing manufactures to capitalize on saccharin’s more intense sweetness. In 1957, Abbott filed a patent for Sucaryl Calcium, a variety of cyclamate that contained less sodium for those on low-salt diets.4
According to the 1957 recipe booklet, “for the first time in history, Sucaryl has made possible calorie-free sweetening which in ordinary use is free of bitterness or that metallic ‘off’ taste.’” The product claimed to contain all of the sweet flavor, but “none of the ‘diet food’ taste.” Unlike pure saccharine, the addition of cyclamate made it possible to use the product in a variety of applications, including baking and home canning, because the cyclamate masked any bitterness.
Cyclamate was incredibly popular in the 1960s. From 1963-1967, annual consumption grew from 6 million pounds to 18 million pounds.5 That all changed in the late 1960s. Two studies, one on rats that showed increased risk of liver and bladder cancer and one on chicken eggs that showed birth defects, caused consumers to question the use of cyclamate. The studies led the FDA to ban cyclamate in 1970.
In the years since, critics have questioned the ban. The amount of cyclamate given to test subjects in the rat and chicken studies was significantly higher than anything a human would ingest during their lifetime. Subsequent studies have not clearly demonstrated cyclamate to be a carcinogen. Supporters of cyclamate argue that it could serve a useful purpose in combating obesity and in providing sugar-free options to diabetics. Critics also argue that all sugar substitutes have drawbacks. Saccharin was similarly targeted as a possible carcinogen in the late 1960s, yet it remains on the market and is one of the most popular sugar substitutes.6 Though banned in the U.S., cyclamate remains legal in many countries and the European Union. It is still sold under the brand name Sucaryl, although the product is not listed on Abbott Laboratory’s website. I was unable to find out which company produces it under that name.
After the FDA banned cyclamates, saccharin remained the main sugar substitute on the market until the early 1980s when the FDA approved aspartame for food use. Like saccharin and cyclamate, it was also discovered in 1965 by a chemist who, you guessed it, licked an unwashed hand.7
As for the Sucaryl cookbook, I’m not planning to try any of the recipes. They are all slightly horrifying. The idea of dissolving or crushing tablets in order to bake a cake seems wrong.