Saccharin's not-so-sweet reputation

Packages of Equal and Splenda artificial sweeteners are displayed at a coffee shop April 9, 2007 in San Rafael, Calif.

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Kai Ryssdal: If I say "saccharine" this time of year, you probably think I'm talking about something like this.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

That'd be saccharine as an adjective, artificially sweet or sugary. We're really talking here about saccharin the noun, the artificial sweetener that got a bad rap back in the 1970s when it was thought to cause cancer. Ten years ago the Food and Drug Administration said actually, saccharin is safe. The warning labels came off the packages. Until yesterday, though, saccharin was still on the EPA's list of hazardous materials.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports on the business of sweet stuff.


Eve Troeh: A group called the Calorie Control Council represents diet foods and beverages. It lobbied the EPA to take saccharin off its hazardous list. President Lynn Nabors says the label meant extra headaches for companies who worked with saccharin. But really, removal from the list was about perception.

Lynn Nabors: We wanted to have a clean slate, so to speak, for saccharin, and I think we now have that.

She says the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries love saccharin. It's cheap, and products made with it have a long shelf life. But its public image has always been lousy.

Rich Cohen: It's a derivative of coal tar, and people just thought that can't be good for you.

Rich Cohen wrote a history of Sweet'N Low -- the most popular form of saccharin -- and his family's company. He says for decades Sweet'N Low was the only low-calorie sweetener on the market. People wondered about it, but they didn't have any other choice. Now, a clean reputation isn't enough. Because consumers see new sweeteners like Splenda and Stevia as just better.

Cohen: Saccharin tastes terrible, and there's always a place for it sort of at the bottom of the market, but it's sort of been passed by.

Food and beverage analyst David Browne agrees, particularly for Gen X consumers and younger, who have a lingering aftertaste that saccharin is bad, no matter the science.

David Browne: They'd rather stay away from something that is questionable, because it's relatively easy to do so, especially.

But he says there's no question companies will keep sneaking cheap saccharin into products where they can -- from toothpaste to cough syrup.

In Los Angeles, I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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