History Matters: How Sweet It Is

History Matters: How Sweet It Is

Innovations and trends that shaped your ancestors’ lives. In this issue: sweeteners.

The next time you tear open a distinctively pink packet of Sweet’N Low, thank Constantin Fahlberg, who patented the world’s first artificial sweetener—saccharin­. Born in Russia, Fahlberg was living in Germany when he got the chance to go to America and work with the great Johns Hopkins University chemist Ira Remsen. As the story goes, in 1879, Remsen was having dinner with his wife after a hard day in the lab researching coal-tar derivatives. He noticed the dinner rolls tasted oddly sweet, then bitter. His wife tasted nothing unusual, so Remsen deduced some substance from his lab was responsible.
 
Another version credits Fahlberg’s unhygienic habits—not washing his hands—that led to the discovery of benzoic sulphinide, which Fahlberg dubbed “saccharin,” from the Latin for sugar, saccharum. In any case, the two men published a paper about their discovery, but Remsen—who went on to become the university’s second president—didn’t think much more about it.
 
Back home in Germany, however, Fahlberg scored financial backing and two patents for saccharin in 1885. Remsen was furious, declaring, “Fahlberg is a scoundrel. It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with him.” Their subsequent 1890s patent war helped bring public attention to saccharin, and Fahlberg got rich. First marketed as an antiseptic and food preservative, saccharin found commercial success as a sweetener, boosted by WWI sugar shortages. Sweet’N Low, introduced in 1957, took advantage of the fact that saccharin is 300 to 500 times as sweet as sugar; it can be used in quantities so small as to effectively contain zero calories.
 
Concerns about saccharin’s safety were raised as early as 1907, and it was one of the first foods to undergo extensive government scrutiny. A 1977 study linking saccharin to bladder cancer in rats led to a ban in Canada and a proposed ban in the United States. The resulting health-warning label on saccharin was removed in 2000 due to lack of clear causal evidence, and the FDA today considers it safe.
 
Saccharin’s story of wealth, government intervention and controversy turns out to be a microcosm of our ancestors’ quest to satisfy their sweet tooth. Archeologists have found evidence of humans harvesting honey as far back as 10,000 BC. We made do with honey for thousands of years, until man made sugar from sugar cane, a giant grass native to India. When the Persian emperor Darius invaded India in 510 BC, he found “the reed which gives honey without bees” and brought the secret of sugar to the West.
 
The Arabs discovered sugar when they, in turn, invaded Persia in 642. The Crusaders brought this sweet “spice” home in the 11th century, with sugar first reaching England in 1099. Sugar remained a luxury—it cost two shillings a pound in 1319, equal to more than $200 today—until Columbus brought sugar cane to the New World, where it grew readily in vast plantations worked by slaves. The former Portuguese colony of Brazil is the world’s largest sugar producer.
 
With the arrival of the first slave ships in 1505, the trade triangle was born: Manufactured goods were shipped from England to Africa and exchanged for slaves. The same vessel then brought slaves to the West Indies, where it picked up its third cargo—sugar, along with the molasses and rum derived from it, for Britain and its North American colonies. The wealth of Britain’s Caribbean sugar plantations, some historians speculate, may have helped America win independence: At the insistence of wealthy planters, British troops were too busy preventing slave revolts to defeat the upstart George Washington.
 
British taxes on molasses from the French West Indies, imposed in 1733, certainly fueled the grumbling that led to the American Revolution. A byproduct of sugar refining, molasses—along with sorghum, introduced to America by Ben Franklin—was the standard household sweetener of the frontier and the South. As late as 1919, molasses production was still industrially important enough that a burst molasses tank at the US Industrial Alcohol Co. in Boston spilled 2.5 million sticky gallons through the city’s streets: An 8-foot wave of molasses destroyed a firehouse, toppled elevated train lines and killed 21 people.
 
But molasses, though cheaper, was still made from sugar cane. Demand for a true alternative led to German chemist Andreas Marggraf’s 1747 discovery that sugar crystals could be extracted from pulverized beets. The British blockade of sugar shipments to Europe during the Napoleonic wars sparked interest in sugar beets, and by 1880 beets had replaced sugar cane as Europe’s primary source of sugar. In the United States, the first successful sugar beet refinery was built in Alvarado, Calif., in 1879; 54 percent of US sugar production—4.5 million tons—now comes from beets.
 
The modern rival to sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), grew out of Gottleib Sigismund Kirchhof’s 1811 discovery at Russia’s Academy of Science. Like the discovery of saccharin, Kirchhof’s breakthrough was an accident while trying to make something else—gum arabic, another victim of the Napoleonic wars blockade. Instead of something sticky, Kirchhof made something sweet from ordinary starch, like that found in corn.
 
A postwar drop in sugar prices sidelined Kirchhof’s find, and “corn syrup” wasn’t popularized in America until the introduction of Karo in 1902. Possibly named for the inventor’s wife, Caroline, Karo was the first packaged corn syrup—previously, customers had to refill their syrup jugs at the store. In the 1930s, the wife of a Karo sales executive developed a recipe for pecan pie, still known as “Karo pie” down South.
 
But corn sweeteners wouldn’t sweep the world until a new Japanese enzyme technology in 1967 enabled a higher yield of fructose from corn. The first factory using the new method opened that year in Clinton, Iowa, and HFCS took off, thanks to federal farm subsidies and corn surpluses. In 1984, Coca-Cola and Pepsi both switched from sugar to HFCS (though elsewhere in the world, sugar’s still the sweetener for sodas).
 
Much like saccharin, HFCS is dogged by controversy, blamed by some for the obesity epidemic. Soft-drink lovers seeking an alternative to HFCS or the equally controversial aspartame now can turn to diet beverages sweetened with stevia, a “natural” compound derived from a plant leaf. Although stevia is the newest sweetener to win FDA approval, it’s actually one of the oldest to appeal to our sweet tooth: Tribes in South America reportedly chewed the leaves and were using stevia in tea around the time sugar first showed up in England.
 
Timeline
1690 A French missionary makes maple syrup in New England
1747 Marggraf extracts sugar from beets
1811 Kirchhof unintentionally gets sugar from starch
1820s Granulated sugar replaces conical sugar “loaves” in the US
1879 Fahlberg and Remsen accidentally discover saccharin
1907 President Theodore Roosevelt’s doctor prescribes saccharin
1937 University of Illinois scientists inadvertently discover cyclamate
1965 Aspartame discovered by chance
1969 FDA bans cyclamate
1976 British scientists create sucralose, on purpose
1982 Aspartame-sweetened Diet Coke introduced
2008 FDA approves stevia
2009 American Heart Association calls for cut in sugar intake

Fun Facts
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 when a chemist working on ulcer treatments licked his finger and noticed it was sweet.

In the 18th century, people bought sugar in tall cones with a heavy string through the middle, like a candlewick.

The first mention of molasses was in a 1582 history of the discovery of the East Indies. It was described as a “certine kind of Sugar made of Palmes of Date trees.”

When King George III of England traded the sugar colony Guadalupe for French Canada in 1763, many Englishmen thought he’d made a mistake.

From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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