TCS Daily

The Sweet N' Lowdown, Thirty Years On

By Elizabeth M. Whelan - March 9, 2007 12:00 AM

Thirty years ago this week -- on March 9, 1977 -- the Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to ban what was then the only artificial sweetener, saccharin. The ban was prompted by a Canadian study suggesting that saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats. The FDA was following the dictates of the so-called "Delaney Clause," which prohibits the use of food additives that cause cancer in laboratory animals.

There have been many food-chemical cancer scares over the years -- including the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959, the red dye #2 kerfuffle of 1976, and the Alar extravaganza of 1989 (with many others in between). But the saccharin scare generated a decidedly different public response.

It wasn't the first scare over this non-caloric, crystalline powder -- 300 times sweeter than sugar, and first synthesized in 1879. The sweetener had run into trouble in 1908 when the then FDA Commissioner Harvey W. Wiley announced that saccharin was unsafe. President Theodore Roosevelt (who was a great fan of saccharin, mixing it into his chewing tobacco) was furious, declaring "anyone who thinks saccharin is injurious to health must be an idiot." Saccharin continued to be sold for decades.

The evidence precipitating the FDA's 1977 ban came from a Canadian study in which saccharin-fed rats developed bladder tumors. The administered dose of saccharin has been compared to the equivalent of human consumption of 800 diet sodas a day for a lifetime.

Still, that sort of evidence was enough to frighten the public on other occasions. They threw out their cranberries at Thanksgiving in 1959, Maraschino cherries in 1979, and their apples in 1989.

But with saccharin, it was different. The public response to the proposed ban was overwhelmingly negative. Consumers voted first with their wallets, sweeping the stores clean of the little pink packets. Diabetics lobbied Congress to reverse the ban, and they were joined by many weight-conscious members of the general public. During 1977, Congress received more mail on the saccharin issue than any other topic.

Under public pressure, Congress announced it would temporarily delay the ban, instead requiring only that saccharin carry a warning label. The moratorium on the ban was extended for years. Finally, in 2000, Congress voted to remove the warning label altogether.

So why would the American people panic over one chemical linked to cancer in rodents -- Alar, for example -- and become outraged when the government tried to "protect" them from another chemical, which had also been shown to cause cancer in rodents?

The answer is that people fear unfamiliar things to which they attribute no personal value -- an agricultural chemical used to delay ripening on applies quite alien most consumers. Sweet'N Low, on the other hand, was to many an old friend -- with clear benefits

What can we learn from the near-ban of saccharin thirty years ago? The take-home messages are:

a) High dose rodent cancer data do not reliably predict human cancer risk.

b) The widespread panics that often result from warnings about "cancer-causing agents" in food, plastic toys, cosmetics, hair dyes, and a long list of other products are more emotion-based than science-based.

c) Irrational bans on chemicals are expensive and unproductive.

When the next cancer scare comes our way, remember thirty years ago -- when saccharin proved to be the "carcinogen" we loved.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science

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