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Saccharin: A Sweet Sugar Alternative or Toxic Danger?

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Posted Wednesday, Sep. 21st, 2011

saccharin

If someone dared you to eat coal tar, would you?  Would you happily sip it down or gleefully sprinkle it on your morning cereal?

Probably not.  After all, you’d have to be crazy to knowingly consume something as awful sounding as coal tar.

But what if I told you it was sweet?  Really sweet.  As in 700 times sweeter than sugar.  Would that matter?

Before you answer an emphatic “no,” consider this.  Not only have you likely eaten or drank this mysterious coal-derived sweetener, it graces virtually every table in restaurants across the country.

Who is Consuming Coal Tar…

This sweet mess is saccharin (think Sweet and Low). It was first produced in 1878 by a chemist working on coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University.  After working with his compounds all day, he discovered that his hand tasted “sweet.”1 Not really sure how it came about that he tasted his hand, but there it is.

Today, saccharin is commonly manufactured by combining anthranilic acid (used among other things as a corrosive agent for metal) with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and ammonia.  Yes, that’s right.  Chlorine and ammonia.

In fact, that particular group of chemicals sounds more like a recipe for a household cleaner than a sweetener.  And yet, millions upon millions of people consume saccharin every year.

But what most people don’t realize is that saccharin has had a rather bumpy road ever since its discovery.

As far back as 1907, the USDA began taking a closer look at saccharin through the Pure Food and Drug Act (a precursor of sorts to the FDA).  Mr. Harvey Wiley, the director of the bureau of chemistry for the USDA during that time, felt saccharin should not be used in foods.  In fact, he is quoted as saying, “[Saccharin is] a coal tar product totally devoid of food value and extremely injurious to health.”2

And the USDA and FDA have flip-flopped virtually ever since.  In 1911, they stated that foods with saccharin were “adulterated,” then in 1912, said that saccharin wasn’t harmful.

In 1948-49, there was much discussion about the dangers of saccharin, but in 1969, an investigation into those claims found little scientific proof to warrant the concerns.  Yet, there must have been something because three years later, in 1972, the FDA tried to ban saccharin.3 They failed, of course, which is why saccharin is still available and being consumed by thousands of people every day.

One of the key reasons for the FDA’s concerns was that in 1970, researchers learned that saccharin caused bladder cancer in lab rats.4 I’ll discuss this a bit more in a moment, but suffice it to say that this created quite a problem for saccharin and the FDA.

See, back in 1958, Congress added a little clause to the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act, mandating that the FDA “prohibits the use of compounds found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal, or if it is found after tests which are appropriated for the evaluation of the safety of the food additive, to induce cancer in man or animal.”5

But, instead of taking it off the market, the FDA simply added a warning to the label of foods containing saccharin stating that it caused bladder cancer in rats.

And the Controversy Continues…

You’d think that would be the end of it, wouldn’t you?  Cancer causing, necessary warning label, etc.  Well, you’d be wrong.  Really wrong.

In late 2000, the FDA removed the warning labels after studies showed that the rats have a completely different chemical make up to their urine.  And it is this particular combination of high pH, high calcium phosphate, and high protein that interacts with saccharin and damages the bladder walls.  And this damage is what leads to increased cancer risk, not the saccharin itself.6,7

And the FDA bought it.  In fact, by 2010, saccharin was been taken off nearly every carcinogenic list, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program to the EPA’s list of hazardous products.

But should it have been?

Big Problems…

Let’s start with cancer.

A 1997 report from the Center for the Science in Public Interest felt that it would be “highly imprudent for the National Toxicology Program to delist saccharin.”  They believed that doing so “would give the public a false sense of security, remove any incentive for further testing, and result in greater exposure to this probable carcinogen in tens of millions of people, including children (indeed, fetuses).”

And with good reason.

As I discussed, there are the rodent studies showing that saccharin caused bladder cancer, not to mention vascular and lung cancer.  It also increased the risk of uterine cancer in female mice.8

This was based on several studies, including one from 1978, which found that rats given saccharin developed bladder cancer that was quite aggressive.9 Additionally, rats exposed while in the womb were even more likely to develop cancer than those exposed immediately after birth.

Researchers in that study concluded, “Saccharin is carcinogenic for the urinary bladder in rats and mice, and most likely is carcinogenic in human beings.”

But the pro-saccharin people argued that rats and people aren’t the same.  Agreed.

There in lies the issue.  No one is willing to do a double blind, placebo-controlled study with saccharin, as it would be imprudent to knowingly place someone at risk.  But there are several case-controlled studies showing a definitive link between saccharin consumption and increased risk of cancer.

First of all, the National Cancer Institute noted a 10 percent increase in the incidence of bladder cancer 1973 and 1994.8 (Remember, the FDA tried to ban saccharin in 1972.)

An analysis of nearly 1,900 cases found that heavy use of artificial sweeteners was associated with increased risk of bladder cancer.10

A second analysis of more than 600 cases also found an increased risk of cancer in Canadian men who consumed either more artificial sweeteners or consumed them for a longer period of time.11

Finally, a British study found that English women who consume more than 10 tablets of artificial sweeteners (mostly saccharin) also had a higher risk of cancer.12

Thanks, but no thanks.

Wait, There’s More…

As if cancer weren’t bad enough, saccharin has also been tied to a variety of allergic reactions, including headaches, breathing issues, skin rashes, and diarrhea.13 Worst yet, it is still being added to some infant formulas!  Give me a break!

And then there’s the dieters’ and diabetic dilemma.  Or perhaps irony is a better word.

A 2008 study from Appetite found “a significant increase of plasma insulin concentration was apparent after stimulation with saccharin.”14 And they didn’t even ingest the saccharin!  They just rinsed their mouth out with it.

As we all know, increased insulin levels is a risk factor for both obesity and diabetes.  Probably NOT the side effect dieters and diabetics are going for when they choose a sugar-free product.

Use Your Brain…

So, what do you do?  You have a sweetener that is used in hundreds of products in the United States, and is deemed “safe” by the FDA.

But it clearly has documented health risks and concerns, ranging from allergies to cancer to increased insulin levels.

So what do you do?  Blindly trust the government and consume away?  I say no.

And the reason is pretty simple.  Chemicals, chemicals, chemicals.

There is nothing natural about saccharin.  Nothing.  And there’s certainly nothing natural about the side effects it has been proven to cause.

I say, just say no and step away.  Far away.

If you must have a bit of sweetness, opt instead for stevia.  This herb comes in both powdered and liquid forms and is a great choice to sweeten coffee, oatmeal, or even give mineral water a flavor boost.  Best of all, it’s chemical- and toxin-free.

And no coal tar in sight.

References:

1Myers, RL and Myers, RL.  The 100 most important chemical compounds: a reference guide.  2007.  Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

2Sugar: A Cautionary Tale.

3Priebem, PM and Kauffman, GB.  Making governmental policy under conditions of scientific uncertainty: A century of controversy about saccharin in congress and the laboratory.  Minerva 1980;18(4):556–74.

4Price, JM et al.  Bladder tumors in rats fed cyclohexylamine or high doses of a mixture of cyclamate and saccharin.  Science.  1970 Feb 20;167(921):1131-2.

5FD&C 409(C) (3) (A).

6Whysner, J and Williams, GM.  Saccharin mechanistic data and risk assessment: urine composition, enhanced cell proliferation, and tumor promotion.  Pharmacol Ther. 1996;71(1-2):225–52.

7Dybing, E.  Development and implementation of the IPCS conceptual framework for evaluating mode of action of chemical carcinogens.  Toxicology 2002 Dec;181-182:121–5.

8Saccharin still poses cancer risk, scientists tell federal agency. CSPI press release. October 28, 1997.

9Reuber, MD. Carcinogenicity of saccharin. Environ Health Perspect. 1978 Aug;25:173-200.

10Sturgeon, SR et al. Associations between bladder cancer risk factors and tumor stage and grade at diagnosis. Epidemiology. 1994 Mar;5(2):218-25.

11Howe, GR and Burch, JD. Artificial sweeteners in relation to the epidemiology of bladder cancer. Nutr Cancer. 1981;2(4):213-6.

12Morrison, AS et al. Artificial sweeteners and bladder cancer in Manchester, U.K., and Nagoya, Japan. Br J Cancer. 1982 Mar;45(3):332-6.

13Stewart, D. Risks of Saccharin. eHow. March 31, 2011.

14Just, T et al. Cephalic phase insulin release in healthy humans after taste stimulation?  Appetite.  2008 Nov;51(3):622-7.

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  • Sheryl

    I don’t eat anything that comes in a box and contains a list of ingredients–much safer that way!

  • Anonymous

    Saccharin isn’t the only sweetener. What about aspartame? Splenda is a much better sweetener than saccharin. This reads like a paid promo for Truvia.
     

  • JM Kenney

    I am extremely disappointed in you for not including all the research.

    Why didn’t you include the more recent study of monkeys that show no problems?

    “The results from this long-term study clearly show that there is no adverse effect of sodium saccharin administered in the diet of three species of monkeys beginning at birth and continuing for nearly the entire lifetime of the animals. ” See the wikipedia article where I found this link to Takayama, S.; Sieber, SM.; Adamson, RH.; Thorgeirsson, UP.; Dalgard, DW.; Arnold, LL.; Cano, M.; Eklund, S. et al. (Jan 1998). “Long-term feeding of sodium saccharin to nonhuman primates: implications for urinary tract cancer.”. J Natl Cancer Inst 90 (1): 19–25. doi:10.1093/jnci/90.1.19. PMID 9428778.

  • Realtyexpert

    Never heard of Stevia.  Why not just use pure cane sugar in moderation?

  • jewels

    coconut sugar is the bomb!

  • Debbie

    never heard of it where do you buy it?

  • Realtyexpert

    Does it taste like coconut?

  • alison

    Hmmmm, when I lived at home, my mom used to make pitcher after pitcher of ice tea with sweet and low as the sweetener….not sure what it is related to, but all 4 of us wound up with cancer….multiple myeloma, waldenstroms macroglobulemia, ovarian cancer and esophigeal cancer.

    Time to throw out the sweet and low….yep

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Alison,

    Oh my! We are so sorry for your family’s cancer ordeals. This is a great time to go the natural route.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Jewels,

    That is a better option, but sugar is still sugar, so be sure to watch intake.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Sugar can be quite addictive and many people do not do well with “moderation.” Additionally, there is the issue of insulin resistance. So, if you are looking for a sugar “replacement,” stevia is the way to go.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Aspartame is next. We thought it would be much too much info for one article to cover all of the sugar replacements at once. We will also cover Splenda, the sugar alcohols, and stevia.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Sheryl,

    That is a terrific rule of thumb!

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    JM,

    We appreciate you pointing out this study. We looked at many, many studies on both sides. The issue with many of the “pro” saccharin studies is the funding. Who funded the study? It is rarely a “disinterested” neutral third party. More often, they are underwritten by a group or company that has a vested interest in the outcome.

    We can check into this study to discover who conducted and funded the study.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    JM,

    We appreciate you pointing out this study. We looked at many, many studies on both sides. The issue with many of the “pro” saccharin studies is the funding. Who funded the study? It is rarely a “disinterested” neutral third party. More often, they are underwritten by a group or company that has a vested interest in the outcome.

    We can check into this study to discover who conducted and funded the study.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • Bevg33

    Truvia is produced by Cargill, not exactly a stellar choice, better to get your stevia from a local health food store (NuNaturals is a good one).
    Question- what about agave? A woman in my town who owns a small organic chocolate shop used agave in all her chocolates for years, now she’s saying that she’s heard from a good source that its really bad for you, worse than HFCS! She said its bad for the liver, can this be discussed in a future article? I don’t ingest it regularly, but it works well in baked items. I have not yet researched this further on line.
    Thanks!

  • Ghaim

    I had no time to read all other comments, but as a cacer researcher for over 40 years I can tell your readers that this is a completely biased review with old and unacceptable tricks. Where are all tens of unbiased, unfunded research articles showing saccharin to be an inert chemical, with no harm to all tested organs from various animals as well as human subjects (See Cohen and many others).   Saccharin is one safe chemical for normal dose consumption.  On the other hand stevia is full of over 50 chemicals that are very dengerous to our health (I will be happy to provide this list…).  The FDA does not approve using Stevia juice or extracts because it has steviosides and steviols which are proved carcingens and teratogens (do PubMed and learn about them).  Only one type of stevia purified  ingredient was approved for use by the FDA, and only as a pure extract.  You start sounding like Mercola and his infantile book on Aspartam (ending with the recommendation for Stevia).  Please do not do the mistake of reviewing Aspartame his way – Your loyal readers deserve more intelligent reviews… 

  • Karen

    Well no offense to the writer but if you take the cancer arguement as used by the person who i would say is a bit of an alarmist you could argue that Chocolate is toxic to dogs so therefore we should look at the FDA not removing chocolate from our grimly little M&M grabbing hands then they are just leading us down the wrong path….Just saying.

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Bev,

    We agree that pure stevia is a far superior choice, but we like to provide realistic options for people who may be entering this lifestyle for the first time and/or may not have access to an organic market or health food store.

    As for agave, we have an article on the site that discusses the concerns with agave. Simply type “agave” in the search function at the top of the page and it will take you to the article.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Karen,

    We love discussions like this! Thank you for your feedback. We understand your analogy…a bit. The reality is chocolate is not meant for dogs. It’s not a part of their diet as a rule. Saccharin is included as a “safe” additive into our food. And some animal testing has shown that it may be problematic. And these are well designed studies. So the question remains a personal one.

    Are you comfortable consuming foods that have been shown to be carcinogenic in lab studies and has documented negative side effects in humans? Given that saccharin is not a necessary part of the diet and has questionable health effects, we believe it’s not the risk.

    But ultimately the decision must be made by each person.

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    Ghaim,

    Thank you for your feedback and we would LOVE to receive a list of the stevia studies, as we are planning an article on the herb in the next few weeks.

    There are most definitely studies on both sides of the fence; however, the key is one your pointed out: “normal dose consumption.” Many people don’t consume sugar-free products in a normal dose consumption. Additionally, they often have several different types of sugar-free products in any given day. And we simply do not know how this over- and layered- consumption affects us long-term.

    Given that saccharin is not a necessary part of the diet and has raised several real and documented concerns, our belief is that it is better to be safe than sorry and pass on the saccharin.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • Paul. Matthews

    Why not use a Natural sweetner that made from God creation. the Honey Bee’s .  Honey is safe and its a healer. lool it up ?

  • http://relief-for-shingles.com David Tennant

    Well, we are what we eat, as they say.  My wife contracted shingles several years ago and guess what – the first thing the naturopath took her off of was sugar, soft drinks, etc.
    Along with that and other anti viral components the treatments began to clear up the problem in 5 days, compared to no days using the treatment from the MD.  If we put the wrong stuff in, we’ll pay the price.

  • http://naturalhealthsherpa.com Natural Health Sherpa

    David,

    Thank you for your story. Food truly can be our medicine…or our problem.

    Naturally yours,

    The Sherpa

  • http://diet-solutionprograms.blogspot.com/ The Diet solution Program

    Hi,
    What is the texture of that coconut sugar?

  • blakeholland

    I used sweet n low every day for about 10 years to sweeten my iced tea at both lunch and dinner. I probably consumed 15 packs a day. At 47 I was just diagnosed with Bladder Cancer. I have always been very active working out 6-7 weeks a days a week and maintained a very healthy diet (so I thought) eating plenty of fresh fruits and veggies and drinking plenty of water. I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t work around plastics or paints or indulge in high risk factors for this disease. I don’t give a crap about what all of these controversial studies tell you, stay away from this chemical as it will kill you! 

  • Karen

    My neice got MS.  She drank a lot of diet coke.  We lost her in 2006 at the age of 33.
    Nobody got it! I sure do! I chek the lables on ALL “diet” or “sugarless” foods!  DO IT!!

  • Encycloman

    I heard the rat study actually had another contaminant in it (something extra to just the saccharine) . They took cyclamates off the market the same way, but never allowed them back in. Meanwhile, GD SEARLE I understand has a lock on liquid Stevia (which they refuse to manufacture).

  • Defehrmaggie

    Excellent information.

  • Dida

    Back to nature we must go…sooner or later we will finally get it!

  • Diana

    Good article.   I definitely stay away from artificial sweeteners and I use stevia or honey to sweeten my food.

  • Onyangoeric

    Thank you,for this insightful article.I can now make an informed choice.Eric
    I

  • DrDestiny

    I haven’t tried it yet but have heard that it doesn’t taste of coconut , but is very close to sugar in taste. 

  • Dale

    What about the Florine in your tap water? I’m sure this is not good for you either but they still put it in there.

  • urmi

    im fighting lung cancer and just looked up what chemicals were highlighted in my chewing gum. shocked to say the least. FYI just to let you know that the FDA is owned by
    pharmaceutical companies…..the only thing they don’t have control of is anything produced
    by nature. cancer is BIG BIG business so why cure any disease. keep those chemicals coming. just saying

  • Dave

    Thank you for this article. Let’s hope millions of people stop ingesting products using this crap and all the other diet death additives like acesulfame, aspartame sucralose etc….

  • Tim

    Thanks for this well written and easily digestible (lol) article Health Sherpa.
    I have, in the last 12 months, given up caffeine and sugar and have replaced all drinks with water filtered through both sediment and half micron carbon filters. To contain this water I now use stainless bottles due to my research on plastics (PET definitely ain’t safe).

    I also avoid all artificial sweeteners. So I thought! I have been using an antacid because my diet ain’t yet free of acid forming foods like wheat (I’m getting there) and today I realise that my chewable tablets are sweetened with both sucrose and saccharin. I’m glad I realised now rather than later, and looks like I will be hitting the parsley and lemon while I sort out the acid forming and inflammatory aspects of my diet!

    Cheers!

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  • epic

    *puke* PEOPLE EATING COAL TAR!!!!!!!!!!!!! WAT THE ****!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Notarino

    I’ve been using saccharin for 40 years. I have “no” effects and feel fine. I have no different aliments, then my friends who never have used it… I won’t use aspertame, because I did have some side effects. You need to eat healthy, excersise and stay away from other foods that are far worse.

  • Notarino

    And I have chewed coal tar… it is not toxic. I have coal in my filters, and coal is used to absorb poision ingestion. Please be complete in your article, and not so one sided.

  • seriously

    I want to do the study to find out for sure if it causes cancer I have been using saccharin for years and I have been a high risk for cancer due to genetics, I been 2 steps from female cancer three times, my mother had female,lung and brain cancer of course not at the same time. my sister had female and breast cancer. all I’m saying is if there is a way to eliminate anything that causes cancer it would be worth it.

  • karen

    I stay away from those fake sweeteners, I get Migraines and sick with one sip. so I know first hand how bad they r. sucrose changes my personality ( and not a nice one). So, I don’t know what all is in them and what it’s made of. But I do know what it does to me and some others. rule of thumb, eat fresh Organic fruits and Veggies and Nuts and seeds and you’ll do better. and If your gonna eat Meat, eat grass feed or as natural as nature intended it to be.

  • Pat

    I use stevia some say it’s good others say it’s bad. I have no problem with it.

  • Jeffry Calhoun

    Have never found an artificial sweetener that tastes decent with cocoa/unsweetened chocolate. Shame, as it’s so good for you.

    Best “natural” sweetener was Eryrthritol, until I found out that it still raised my blood sugar although it’s better than sugar. (I can only tolerate 12 – 20 carbs per day of non-fiber carbs– this is from vegetables and tiny amounts of fruit, like a few berries).

    I had a great stevia until ALL the companies started using the Chinese junk, which is bitter, so I don’t use that anymore, either. It’s not good enough to sweeten, just flavor or suggest sweetness. There is one brand that is touted (Slim-Tevia) but has fructose added- although fructose does not raise blood sugar much, it does increase your insulin resistance.

    Honey, etc. jacks up the blood sugar. So do the sugar alcohols (these are what are used in “sugar free” products), monk fruit, dates, etc. Agave is LOADED with fructose. That leaves NOTHING as a suitable sweetener for me.

    For 40 years I was extremely careful, eating a healthy diet, exercising. How did I tip the scales and develop bad diabetes? Using those touted “natural” sugar alternatives, which were loaded with fructose! (I don’t have a sweet tooth, either).

    If someone ever develops a decent sweetener for bad diabetics, I’m first in line!

  • richard seidel

    there is one absolute truth…..your body wasn’t made to consume so many chemicals….even though it does a pretty good job depending on your make-up…..that’s the 64,000 dollar question….where do you fit in??? lots of chemicals in your body???probably not good….less chemicals, probably better…..do your own research….

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