Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: What Could Be Sweeter? Part 4

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter? Part 4

If last week's sweetener neotame was the upstart, this week's is the patriarch. Saccharin was discovered in 1879, has been used for well over a century, and is the most widely used high intensity sweetener in the world. So, let's learn more about it!

The raw material for saccharin, aka benzoic sulfinide, is anthranilic acid, the amino acid precursor to tryptophan, which is reacted with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine and ammonia. Sounds yummy doesn't it? Well, not many things sound very appetizing if you get in to their chemical makeup! But saccharin isn't very soluble in its native state, so it is usually converted to its sodium salt (calcium salts are also available but not as common). Sodium saccharin does not contribute any calories, is non-digestable, and is 300 times sweeter than sugar.

But that is not what most people know about saccharin, what they've learned is that it causes cancer. So, lets spend some time discussing saccharin's safety. Saccharin was first used on a large scale during WWI when sugar was rationed and it was added to the newly formed GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe) in 1958. In the early 1970's the FDA began a review of GRAS substances to see how they performed under more modern scientific scrutiny. This is when saccharin was first seen to cause bladder cancer in rats when they were fed the equivalent of 800 diet sodas per day. At first there was some discussion that impurities in the saccharin were responsible for the cancer but in 1977, research did conclude that it was the saccharin. Because of this, a warning label was required to be placed on any product containing saccharin that stated "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to casue cancer in laboratory animals."

Since then a number of new studies have been conducted, including mechanistic studies which look at how a substance works in the body, and they paint a different picture. See, rats aren't people, [although some people have certainly be said to have been rats :) ] and the mechanism that exists in rats which leads to the bladder cancer doesn't exist in humans. Those tumors are species and organ specific - so the results are bad for rats, but irrelevant to people. [For those concerned about the rats, newer studies have suggested it is actually the sodium salt and not the saccharin that may be the culprit, as sodium ascorbate (vitamin C) and sodium citrate also seem to produce similar results.]

Human epidemiology studies (patterns, causes, & control of diseases) have not shown any evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans. In fact, since saccharin is not metabolized and does not react with DNA, it lacks two of the major characteristics of classic carciongens. Because of these studies, saccharin was delisted as a carcinogen in 2000 and the warning labels were removed in 2001. The American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have all given saccharin a clean bill of health. Unfortunately, a survey conducted in 2006 found that 30% of Americans still thought that the warning labels were on products, and I'm willing to bet that more than that still think it causes cancer.

So, what about this product has made it so appealing for so long? Well, saccharin is heat stable even in acid conditions which makes it a great choice for beverages. It is also ok for use by diabetics since it has no effect on blood sugar levels. Just beware that those little pink packets do not contain straight saccharin; they are blended with dextrose to dilute the sweetness to the equivalent to 2 teaspoons of sugar, and so do contain a nutrative (read: calorie containing) sweetener. Saccharin also is synergistic with other sweeteners, both nutrative and non-nutrative, enhancing their sweetness in products. It has a long shelf life and is heat stable, so can be used in a wide variety of foods including baked goods and canned goods like jellies.

So, I hope you now have a new perspective on saccharin. Like many of the other high intensity sweeteners that I've covered, there is quite a lot of misinformation out there. Next week I'll be covering the last FDA approved high intensity sweetener - Sucralose, so please come back to learn about the US's most popular sweetener.

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