02 June 2009
The invention: An artificial sweetener introduced to the American market in 1950 under the tradename Sucaryl. The person behind the invention: Michael Sveda (1912-1999), an American chemist A Foolhardy Experiment The first synthetic sugar substitute, saccharin, was developed in 1879. It became commercially available in 1907 but was banned for safety reasons in 1912. Sugar shortages during World War I (1914- 1918) resulted in its reintroduction. Two other artificial sweeteners, Dulcin and P-4000, were introduced later but were banned in 1950 for causing cancer in laboratory animals. In 1937, Michael Sveda was a young chemist working on his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. Aflood in the Ohio valley had ruined the local pipe-tobacco crop, and Sveda, a smoker, had been forced to purchase cigarettes. One day while in the laboratory, Sveda happened to brush some loose tobacco from his lips and noticed that his fingers tasted sweet. Having a curious, if rather foolhardy, nature, Sveda tasted the chemicals on his bench to find which one was responsible for the taste. The culprit was the forerunner of cyclohexylsulfamate, the material that came to be known as “cyclamate.” Later, on reviewing his career, Sveda explained the serendipitous discovery with the comment: “God looks after . . . fools, children, and chemists.” Sveda joined E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company in 1939 and assigned the patent for cyclamate to his employer. In June of 1950, after a decade of testing on animals and humans, Abbott Laboratories announced that it was launching Sveda’s artificial sweetener under the trade name Sucaryl. Du Pont followed with its sweetener product, Cyclan. A Time magazine article in 1950 announced the new product and noted that Abbott had warned that because the product was a sodium salt, individuals with kidney problems should consult their doctors before adding it to their food.Cyclamate had no calories, but it was thirty to forty times sweeter than sugar. Unlike saccharin, cyclamate left no unpleasant aftertaste. The additive was also found to improve the flavor of some foods, such as meat, and was used extensively to preserve various foods. By 1969, about 250 food products contained cyclamates, including cakes, puddings, canned fruit, ice cream, salad dressings, and its most important use, carbonated beverages. It was originally thought that cyclamates were harmless to the human body. In 1959, the chemical was added to the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list. Materials on this list, such as sugar, salt, pepper, and vinegar, did not have to be rigorously tested before being added to food. In 1964, however, a report cited evidence that cyclamates and saccharin, taken together, were a health hazard. Its publication alarmed the scientific community. Numerous investigations followed. Shooting Themselves in the Foot Initially, the claims against cyclamate had been that it caused diarrhea or prevented drugs from doing their work in the body. By 1969, these claims had begun to include the threat of cancer. Ironically, the evidence that sealed the fate of the artificial sweetener was provided by Abbott itself. Aprivate Long Island company had been hired by Abbott to conduct an extensive toxicity study to determine the effects of longterm exposure to the cyclamate-saccharin mixtures often found in commercial products. The team of scientists fed rats daily doses of the mixture to study the effect on reproduction, unborn fetuses, and fertility. In each case, the rats were declared to be normal. When the rats were killed at the end of the study, however, those that had been exposed to the higher doses showed evidence of bladder tumors. Abbott shared the report with investigators from the National Cancer Institute and then with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The doses required to produce the tumors were equivalent to an individual drinking 350 bottles of diet cola a day. That was more than one hundred times greater than that consumed even by those people who consumed a high amount of cyclamate. A six-person panel of scientists met to review the data and urged the ban of all cyclamates from foodstuffs. In October, 1969, amid enormous media coverage, the federal government announced that cyclamates were to be withdrawn from the market by the beginning of 1970. In the years following the ban, the controversy continued. Doubt was cast on the results of the independent study linking sweetener use to tumors in rats, because the study was designed not to evaluate cancer risks but to explain the effects of cyclamate use over many years. Bladder parasites, known as “nematodes,” found in the rats may have affected the outcome of the tests. In addition, an impurity found in some of the saccharin used in the study may have led to the problems observed. Extensive investigations such as the three-year project conducted at the National Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany, found no basis for the widespread ban. In 1972, however, rats fed high doses of saccharin alone were found to have developed bladder tumors. At that time, the sweetener was removed from the GRAS list. An outright ban was averted by the mandatory use of labels alerting consumers that certain products contained saccharin. Impact The introduction of cyclamate heralded the start of a new industry. For individuals who had to restrict their sugar intake for health reasons, or for those who wished to lose weight, there was now an alternative to giving up sweet food. The Pepsi-Cola company put a new diet drink formulation on the market almost as soon as the ban was instituted. In fact, it ran advertisements the day after the ban was announced showing the Diet Pepsi product boldly proclaiming “Sugar added—No Cyclamates.” Sveda, the discoverer of cyclamates, was not impressed with the FDA’s decision on the sweetener and its handling of subsequent investigations. He accused the FDAof “a massive cover-up of elemental blunders” and claimed that the original ban was based on sugar politics and bad science. For the manufacturers of cyclamate, meanwhile, the problem lay with the wording of the Delaney amendment, the legislation that regulates new food additives. The amendment states that the manufacturer must prove that its product is safe, rather than the FDAhaving to prove that it is unsafe. The onus was on Abbott Laboratories to deflect concerns about the safety of the product, and it remained unable to do so.