Saccharin, an artificial or “non-nutritive” sweetener, was discovered in 1878 at John Hopkins University. It is one of the oldest and most widely studied artificial sweeteners and is used in many foods and beverages today. Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and your body does not break it down or absorb it. Ever since its discovery, saccharin has endured considerable criticism regarding its safety.
The 1970s Saccharin Ban
In the 1970s, saccharin was thought to cause bladder cancer. A clinical study published by oncologists at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1970 showed that rats given saccharin daily had a higher incidence of developing bladder cancer. These results led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to remove saccharin from the list of foods that are “generally recognized as safe.” Saccharin was subsequently banned in 1977. The ban was short-lived, however; later that year, the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act was passed, allowing the use of saccharin with the requirement that all foods and beverages containing the artificial sweetener display a warning label.
Lack of Evidence for Cancer
Because of the association of saccharin with bladder cancer in rats, all foods and beverages containing saccharin had to display this warning: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals." In 1998, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that the mechanism through which saccharin led to the development of bladder cancer in mice did not apply to humans. These findings led to the removal of saccharin from the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens -- substances known to cause cancer -- in 2000 and the subsequent repeal of the use of the warning label on foods and beverages containing saccharin.
Viable Sweetener for Diabetics
Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the FDA to ensure safety. Saccharin has been extensively studied, and no evidence to date has found any harmful effects in humans from consuming it. In fact, the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association support the use of artificial sweeteners, especially in those with diabetes, because artificial sweeteners do not raise blood sugar levels like sugar does.
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Experts Consider Saccharin Safe
Saccharin is one of the most rigorously studied food additives and has been used in food products for more than 100 years. Several well-regarded medical organizations support the use of saccharin, including the American Cancer Society, American Medical Association, American Institute for Cancer Research, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Diabetes Association. If you have diabetes, or are searching for a lower calorie way to enjoy your favorite foods and beverages, saccharin is considered a safe alternative by these experts.
- Chemical Heritage Foundation: The Pursuit of Sweet: A History of Saccharin
- National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health: Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer
- Saccharin.org: US National Toxicology Program and International Agency for Research on Cancer Review of Saccharin
- International Food Information Council Foundation: Facts About Low-Calorie Sweeteners
- American Diabetes Association: American Heart Association/American Diabetes Association Scientific Statement: Non-nutritive sweeteners: A Potentially Useful Option -- With Caveats
- Saccharin.org: Saccharin Safety
Leah Wargolet graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in dietetics. She then completed her dietetic internship at California State University, Fresno, to become a registered dietitian. Wargolet recently completed her Master of Science in Physician Assistant Practice degree.