Carolyn Thomas Caroline Thomas Home read an excerpt
Book Blurb

Chapter One

False Scarlet
Healthful Sugar vs. Adulterous Saccharin in the Early Twentieth Century

Saccharin is as false a scarlet as the glow of health transferred from the rouge pot to the cheek of a bawd.
— Alfred McCann, late 1920s

In the twenty-first century, few of us are shocked to find artificial sweeteners on our supermarket shelves. We rarely gasp in horror when we see a can of soda sweetened with aspartame (Equal/Nutra Sweet) in a fellow shopper’s cart. We do not complain to the manager when we find a bag of sucralose (Splenda) next to the sugar in the baking section, advertising its ability to facilitate sugar-free cakes for the “health-conscious” family. We may reach for a little pink packet to sweeten a restaurant-ordered iced tea simply because saccharin dissolves easier than sugar. We sometimes answer “diet” when asked on the airplane if we would like a complimentary beverage, perhaps calculating missed time at the gym and the number of hours we will spend sedentary. Consumption of artificial sweeteners is normal, accepted. While some people use an artificial sweetener because of diabetes, most consumers use it because they want to. They actually prefer it to sugar.

This preference would have seemed strange, if not dangerous, to our great-grandparents. In the 1910s, Americans actively campaigned against saccharin, the first artificial sweetener to be used in processed foods and beverages. The early years of saccharin’s introduction in the United States reveal that the sweetener entered the marketplace an unknown good, something without precedent and therefore not clearly defined as a positive or negative commodity. Very quickly, however, in a climate where sugar reigned king, home baking was admired, and industrial food processing was distrusted, it became associated with duplicity, impurity, and poor nutritional practice. The initial assessment of saccharin by Americans was deeply embedded in their cultural moment. Because health was wed to calories and the home was a more trusted place for sweet production than the market, sugar was deemed an appropriate, and saccharin an inappropriate, sweet.

In the intervening century, we have learned to see artificial sweeteners in a very different light. Whereas they were once dismissed as detrimental to Americans’ diets, today they have become synonymous with the very term “diet.” This shift represents a profound reevaluation of sweetness in American life. It also reflects a change in the way we define the proper relationship between sweetness and calories. We have, in a relatively short time, gone from promoting the healthfulness of calorie-rich sweets to deeming them a significant cause of ill health. The result has been, since World War II, a growing acceptance of what health reformers once insisted were inferior, dishonest products. We now find little dissonance
in ingesting noncaloric chemicals in pursuit of health.

Our attitudes have not changed merely because of calories. While shifts in nutritional science and postwar consumer practices have encouraged a new emphasis on low-calorie eating and drinking, other factors have also been influential. Chief among them are early to midcentury redefinitions of the trustworthiness of industrial food manufacturers and the proper place of chemicals in everyday life. Much of the early critique of saccharin depended on a view of industry that drew a strong line between “natural” and “artificial.” Advanced technologies, in fact, produced both sugar and saccharin. Yet because sugar contained calories and saccharin did not and sugar had its origins in plantation fields while saccharin had its origins in coal tar, individuals saw the former as natural, or connected to nature, and the latter as artificial, a product of the chemist’s lab. The very taste of saccharin, slightly chemical and intensely sweet, was understood as a further sign of its true nature as an inferior substitute. Preferring sugar to saccharin was not merely about preferring a kind of sweet or privileging calories; it was also an assessment of the proper place of technology in everyday life. In the early twentieth century, sugar was as much the product of the field as it was of the factory, and therefore it represented an important stasis between past and future so important to modern life. This view would shift with the chemical revolution produced by World War II and its immediate aftermath.

The following pages explore the antisweetener, prosugar value systems of our grandparents. They illuminate the process by which artificial sweetener was introduced into the American food supply and its subsequent popular reputation as a symbol for all that was wrong with industrial food and beverages. There was, in the early twentieth century, nothing inevitable about the negative characterization of saccharin any more than there is something inevitable about the positive characterization of sucralose (Splenda) today. Much of the negativity was produced by the sugar industry and sugar-using soda companies through antisaccharin
advertisements that publicized problems identified by the Department of Agriculture to American consumers. Nutrition reformers also urged Americans, particularly members of the working class and immigrants, to see sugar as the more virtuous sweet because of its quick, cheap carbohydrates. Cookbook writers and women’s advice columnists on the wartime home front also elevated sugar to an essential “fuel” that could win the war, a message that enhanced its prestige and status as a precious commodity.

By 1950, this close affiliation between sugar, nature, labor, and women’s domestic roles would have the opposite effect. Sugar’s preciousness, suddenly a liability, would provide just the opening needed for a positive reassessment of artificial sweetener.

Saccharin at the Fair

Saccharin made its U.S. debut at the 1893 World’s Fair. This is not surprising. The fair was the occasion to promote new innovations, especially those that represented significant advances in a nation’s industrial, agricultural, and consumer technologies of production and distribution. Saccharin appeared in the agricultural building, where it would have been positioned between farm implements and transport machinery used in food production and finished goods more familiar to consumers from market shelves. While photographs of the saccharin booth do
not appear to have survived, one can assume that the arrangement mirrored other displays of canned goods during period consumer expositions: impressive stacks of product stretching toward the ceiling, sometimes placed next to descriptions or installations of factory production or distribution processes. Product promoters in the rapidly expanding canned goods market often arranged their product against backdrops of industrial efficiency to appeal to consumers who, according to one historian, were “often frightened” by what he terms the “scale, power, and remoteness” of industrial food production. Combining playful pyramid displays for consumers to peruse with helpful agents who could describe the production process enabled manufacturers to infuse their products with large-scale quality and direct-sale trustworthiness.

Curiously, though, and despite the best efforts of its promoters, saccharin appears not to have appealed to consumers in Chicago. Like other commodities, it was on display for the public during the length of the exhibition. Its placement in the agricultural building suggests that people should have associated it with food production and realized that it was an important modern advance. Existing copies of the pamphlet that was distributed to fairgoers suggest that the product’s inventor and booth manager, Constantin Fahlberg, aimed to communicate the virtues of his new substance directly to consumers. Visitors who opened the pamphlet would have learned that saccharin was developed by Dr. Fahlberg about twenty years earlier, made of something called coal tar, and described only as “a perfectly harmless spice” that was 500 times sweeter than “the best sugar” and had already come into general use in “numerous
industries.” It was telling that Fahlberg focused on a description of saccharin as a “spice” rather than defining coal tar, the material from which it was distilled, a brown or black liquid produced by the carbonization of coal.

If few fairgoers familiarized themselves with saccharin in Chicago, it was not because the pamphlet was inaccessible, as it was printed in German, English, French, and Spanish. Nor was it because Fahlberg failed to reach out to individual consumers, as the booklet explicitly explains that his goal was to make saccharin “of use and service to everybody.” It may be that the booth was located in an inauspicious spot in the building or that its unfamiliar name failed to attract sufficient attention. It is possible that there was some concerted effort to prevent Fahlberg from receiving attention, given what he characterizes in the booklet as “violent opposition” by the sugar interests, who would have been represented in the same agricultural building, possibly in a neighboring exhibit.

It remains a mystery as to why Fahlberg’s attempt to pitch saccharin to the general public failed. But fail it did. According to one historian, most U.S. world’s fairs have been designed, in fact, to “advance the material growth of the country at large,” rather than to promote individual products to visiting consumer tourists. As part of the agriculture exhibits, saccharin would have been in the midst of inventions meant for large-scale industrial applications, such as seed technologies, irrigation tools, and harvesting machinery. Within this environment it seems likely that manufacturers, rather than consumers, comprised the majority of visitors to Fahlberg’s booth. In fact, the material form of the commodity, packed in large tins rather than small packets or prepackaged food products that consumers could taste, further emphasized its industrial applicability. The first time most American consumers would hear about saccharin was nearly two decades later when they learned it had long been inserted, without their knowledge or consent, into carbonated beverages and packaged food products. In spite of Fahlberg’s initial efforts, saccharin quickly became affiliated with the worst of American food industry practices. Unlike sugar, which had for a century been promoted as a healthful sweet with clear origins on plantations in Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean, saccharin emerged from a laboratory as the refinement of a substance that offered no calories and seemed to have nothing to do with food. It was deemed a false scarlet, a sweet masquerading as something it was not, a coal-tar derivative, and a product of unsafe chemical origins. The result of saccharin’s debut was indeed “excitement,” but not the kind Fahlberg intended.

Saccharin’s Inventors and Industrial Birth

Saccharin’s initial consumer reception was in many ways a logical consequence of the promotion tactics used by its early entrepreneurs. Constantin Fahlberg first discovered the substance when working with coal tar derivatives with the hope of discovering a new food preservative in 1879. He was, at the time, a chemist working in Professor Ira Remsen’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. The research was part of a project
overseen by Remsen. After unintentionally licking his finger (so the story goes) after a day’s experiments, however, Fahlberg’s perspective on their partnership shifted. Convinced that he had found something of
far greater value than a mere food preservative, Fahlberg began secretly working to refine and replicate the substance that he called, because of its intense sweetness, saccharin.

Remsen was dismayed when, several years later, papers appeared in U.S. and German chemistry journals declaring Fahlberg the sole inventor of saccharin. Likely motivated by this struggle over who the rightful progenitor of saccharin was, Fahlberg worked tirelessly to promote the product, find industrial buyers, and produce publications. Much of this activity appears driven by his desire to fend off Remsen’s claims by associating his name with saccharin in as many venues as possible in the shortest amount of time. At an 1885 taste demonstration at a London exposition, Fahlberg attracted the attention of several beverage manufacturers from New York. He appears shortly thereafter to have begun working with a six-member business cartel in Westhusen, Germany, to increase the production of saccharin and facilitate the discovery of other coal-tar derivatives. With saccharin as their prized commodity, the cartel and Fahlberg embarked on a fifteen- year monopoly over production of the product. Eager to maximize profi ts, the cartel actively courted executives and chemists from the rapidly expanding canned food and soda manufacturing industries. By prioritizing rapid expansion and industrial partnerships over direct- to- consumer marketing, Fahlberg had succeeded by the time he arrived at the fair. Visitors who thought they were encountering saccharin for the first time were probably already drinking it in their sodas.

Saccharin continued to be a tool for industrial food manufacturing and corporate expansion in the hands of John Queeney, who established its first manufacturing facility in the United States. After several years of
carrying saccharin as one of his products as an independent sales agent working with the Westhusen cartel, Queeney saw an opportunity in 1901 to open his own shop in St. Louis. The company would eventually
come to be known as Monsanto Chemical. Queeney’s decision to base his company on saccharin was predicated on upticks he had noticed in saccharin consumption among soda manufacturers who found it easily soluble in carbonated beverages and far cheaper per unit of sweetness than sugar (one report from 1906 claimed that sugar was approximately thirteen times as expensive as the amount of saccharin that yielded a similarly sweet taste). Further, because saccharin was produced in the lab from organic materials, rather than in countries with political instability, it was not subject to the market fluctuations that frequently surrounded sugar. Sugar became even less attractive after the passage of the Dingley Tariff in 1897, an action designed to protect the fledgling domestic sugar industry that effectively asked industries reliant upon sugar to take a loss in profits for an uncertain period of years.

By 1903, Monsanto Chemical Company was producing caffeine, vanillin, and saccharin, the three chemical components of soda. That same year, Queeney’s investment paid off when he signed an exclusive contract
with the Liquid Carbonic Acid Manufacturing Company, the largest seller of soda fountain supplies. By 1906, soda manufacturers were increasingly looking to saccharin as a low-cost alternative, and Monsanto was busy expanding its production to fill demand.

Saccharin Consumers Discover the False Scarlet

In many ways, saccharin embodied the efficiency and scientific rationality desired in the late nineteenth century. Because it was a highly concentrated substance, it delivered more from less. Because it was a sweetener as well as a preservative, it could enhance the flavor of food and keep it on the shelves longer. Because it was cheaper than sugar, it offered a chance to further democratize sweetness, a flavor that had been becoming more accessible to the masses since sugar’s arrival in Europe in the sixteenth century. One can easily imagine saccharin as one of the “inventions” featured in Edward Bellamy’s best- selling Looking Backward, an 1888 novel that described a future world of effcient inventions, where pneumatic tubes delivered products automatically and universal “umbrellas” appeared at the first drop of rain.

That saccharin did not enjoy widespread support has much to do with Fahlberg and Queeney’s decision to develop and market the substance for an industrial food system without informing consumers. In spite of
the fact that New York was home to many of the soda manufacturers in the early twentieth century, a survey of contemporary New York Times coverage yields only two articles (one in 1896 and one in 1901) that mention saccharin. Neither discusses saccharin as something that an ordinary consumer would choose in order to sweeten a product. Nor do they suggest that saccharin was, in fact, something that many were already ingesting. Instead, the articles feature individuals who are consuming saccharin for strategic ends, such as deployed soldiers and athletes “entering an important contest.” Because soda was often served at soda fountains, where ingredients lists were not available, and labeling of bottled soda was not then mandated by law, consumers were equally unprompted by their own consumption habits to think of saccharin as an everyday product.

The first large-scale discussion of saccharin appears to have begun as part of Harvey Wiley’s well- publicized crusades against impure foods as part of the Food and Drug (FDA) legislation during the Progressive Era….


From EMPTY PLEASURES: THE STORY OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS FROM SACCHARIN TO SPLENDA by Carolyn de la Peña. Copyright © 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Buy the Book

The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda
by Carolyn de la Peña

Copyright 2010 Carolyn Thomas