This was the week of stevia, a new zero calorie sweetener, that got FDA approval as a safe food additive, and will shortly find its way into soft drinks and other products scattered about our supermarket aisles. If you are confused about all the different sweetening options out there, you are not alone. Once upon a time, it was either honey or cane sugar. But then came the industrial revolution…
(Grab a cup of coffee, take a deep breath, this is a long post)
10,000 BC – archeological evidence of honey harvesting by humans. Honey has 4 calories per gram.
6000 BC – first use of sugar sourced from sugar cane. The cane is crushed, the liquid boiled and purified, and when dried crystallines are formed. Sugar has 4 calories per gram.
1000+ AD – Stevia leaves are chewed and used in teas by tribes in Central and South America.
1879 – Saccharin is accidentally discovered at Johns Hopkins university. Much sweeter than sugar, with a slightly bitter aftertaste, it became commercially available soon after, but did not gain much popularity. Saccharin has zero calories and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Trivial fact – honey bees will not eat saccharin.
1907 – First USDA investigation of harmful side effects of saccharin.
1915 – Sugar shortages during World War I helped bolster sales of saccharin.
1931 – French researchers isolate the compounds responsible for stevia leaves’ sweetness. Stevioside and rebaudioside are 250–300 times sweeter than sucrose, heat stable, and have zero calories. They are natural substances, as oppose to artificially produced sweeteners such as saccharin.
1937 – Cyclamate, an artificial sweetener, is discovered at the University of Illinois, again, by accident. Cyclamate has zero calories and is 30 times sweeter than sugar.
1938 – The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is passed by Congress. The FDA is given the authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics.
1957 – Sweet’N Low, a blend of Saccharin, dextrose and cream of tartar is introduced to market as a table sugar alternative. The pink packets go on to become a cultural icon.
1958 – Cyclamate is granted GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) by the FDA.
1958 – The Delaney Ammendment to the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act states: “the Secretary of the Food and Drug Administration shall not approve for use in food any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.”
1963 – Coca Cola’s introduces Tab, a diet soda sweetened with saccharin.
1965 – Aspartame is accidentally discovered in a laboratory of a company later acquired by Monsanto. Aspartame is a zero calorie artificial sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar. Some people don’t like its taste because it reacts with other food flavors. It will take 15 years to get it approved for use as a food additive. Another drawback is limited shelf life of aspartame sweetened drinks because its active ingredient breaks down in water. Aspartame is 100-200 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories.
1967 – German chemist discovers Acesulfame K, 200 times sweeter than sugar, with a bitter aftertaste adn zero calories.
1969 – Cyclamate is banned by the FDA, after research links it to cancer in mice. To this day, it is still banned in the US.
1971 – First commercial use of stevia in Japanese soft drinks.
1970′s – The high cost of sugar leads soft drink manufacturers to look for other solutions. A farm subsidy system that created huge corn surpluses triggered a switch from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The sweetener is produced by milling the corn to produce a starch and then processing that corn starch to yield corn syrup. The cost of HFCS is much lower in the US than sugar. HFCS has 4 calories per gram.
1976 – Sucralose is discovered by scientists from Tate & Lyle and King’s College London. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories.
1977 – The FDA propose to ban saccharin, after the publication of a studies showing that rats fed large doses had high rates of cancer. Saccharin is the only artificial sweetener on the market at the time. A huge public outcry ensues, orchestrated by various lobbies, which helped Saccharin survive.
1977 – The Saccharin Study and Labeling Act allows saccharin to continue to be sold but requires a warning label – “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health”.
1981 – Despite testing that suggested aspartame caused brain tumors in rats, the FDA approves its use.
1981 – Nutrasweet, a brand name aspartame sweetener, is introduced to markets as a table sugar alternative in blue packets.
1982 – Diet Coke is introduced, using rising star aspartame as the artificial sweetener of choice.
1984 – Coca Cola and Pepsi, the #1 and #2 soft drink manufacturers switch from sugar to HFCS in the US. In other countries, they continue to use sugar. Since then, obesity rates in the US have shot up and many fingers have been pointed at HFCS as the culprit. Studies have not yielded a definite answer. Researchers agree that there is a correlation, but argue as to causality. The jury is still out.
1985 – A request to re-approve cyclamate is filed, after it is found that the tests showing it causes cancer were flawed.
1988 – Acesulfame K is approved for use in foods by the FDA. Ever since, it is used in addition to other artificial sweetners such as aspartame and sucralose.
1991 – the FDA labels stevia as an “unsafe food additive” and restricts its import. Some believe this was done at the behest of the companies manufacturing artificial sweeteners based on aspartame.
1992 – Nutrasweet patents expire, allowing additional companies to produce and market aspartame. Equal is one.
1992 – FDA approve the use of Neotame, a new sweetener from the Nutrasweet company. Neotame, 10,o00 times sweeter than sugar, will fail to achieve siginificant market success.
1998 – FDA rejects petitions to ban Acesulfame K despite indications that it may lead to health problems.
1998 – Sucralose is approved by the FDA, paving the way for the yellow packets of Splenda table sugar alternative.
2000 - Congress repeals the law requiring saccharin products to carry warning labels.
2008 – The Corn Refiners Association, trying to quell consumer unease with high fructose corn syrup, initiates a full blown TV advertisement campaign.
Today the best selling zero calorie sweetener in the US is Splenda by far, with Nutrasweet in 2nd place, and saccharin a close third. Now that its “kosher” it will be intersting to see where stevia sales will be in a few years.
By the way, what sweetener was in your cup of coffee?
If you liked this history lesson, read 1862 – 2008: A Brief History of Food and Nutrition Labeling.