- By Claire Suddath - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - TIME
Too much sugar will make you fat, but too much artificial sweetener will ... do what exactly? Kill you? Make you thinner? Or have absolutely no effect at all? This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration's decision to ban cyclamate, the first artificial sweetener prohibited in the U.S., and yet scientists still haven't reached a consensus about how safe (or harmful) artificial sweeteners may be. Shouldn't we have figured this out by now? (See the top 10 bad beverage ideas.)
The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered in 1879 when Constantin Fahlberg, a Johns Hopkins University scientist working on coal-tar derivatives, noticed a substance on his hands and arms that tasted sweet. No one knows why Fahlberg decided to lick an unknown substance off his body, but it's a good thing he did. Despite an early attempt to ban the substance in 1911 skeptical scientists said it was an "adulterant" that changed the makeup of food saccharin grew in popularity, and was used to sweeten foods during sugar rationings in World Wars I and II. Though it is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories, saccharin leaves an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. So when cyclamate came on the market in 1951, food and beverage companies jumped at the chance to sweeten their products with something that tasted more natural. By 1968, Americans were consuming more than 17 million pounds of the calorie-free substance a year in snack foods, canned fruit and soft drinks like Tab and Diet Pepsi. (See nine kid foods to avoid.)
But in the late 1960s, studies began linking cyclamate to cancer. One noted that chicken embryos injected with the chemical developed extreme deformities, leading scientists to wonder if unborn humans could be similarly damaged by their cola-drinking mothers. Another study linked the sweetener to malignant bladder tumors in rats. Because a 1958 congressional amendment required the FDA to ban any food additive shown to cause cancer in humans or animals, on Oct. 18, 1969, the government ordered cyclamate removed from all food products. (See the 10 worst fast-food meals.)
Saccharin became mired in controversy in 1977, when a study indicated that the substance might contribute to cancer in rats. An FDA move to ban the chemical failed, though products containing saccharin were required to carry warning labels. In 2000, the chemical was officially removed from the Federal Government's list of suspected carcinogens. (Read TIME's 1974 article on cyclamate and saccharin.)
In 1981, the synthetic compound aspartame was approved for use, and it capitalized on saccharin's bad publicity by becoming the leading additive in diet colas. In 1995 and 1996, leaked information about aspartame that linked the chemical to multiple sclerosis and Gulf War syndrome was widely disseminated on the Internet. While aspartame does adversely effect your health including those who are unable to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Aspartame and many other artificial sweeteners found in food, drinks, chewing gum and Splenda have been tested 100s of times, and each test has confirmed that there are serious health risks associated with every single one of these manmade chemicals additives, which means that it would be best to enjoy natural foods and beverages without any artificial sweeteners, coloring, taste and all the rest, but eat and drink less and be active more.
The fear caused by the available information is plaguing the faux-sweetener market seems to be also rooted in a common misinformation spread by the chemicals manufacturers. No evidence indicates that sweeteners cause obesity; people with weight problems simply tend to eat more of it. While recent studies have suggested a possible link between artificial sweeteners and obesity, a direct link between additives and weight gain has yet to be found. The general consensus in the scientific community is that saccharin, aspartame and sucralose are harmless when consumed in moderation. Cyclamate is still banned in the U.S. and many other countries, but it can be found in the Canadian version of Sweet'n Low. Low-calorie additives won't make you thinner, or curb your appetite.