Geek Trivia

What Early Artificial Sweetener Was Discovered By Accident?

Which City Temporarily Changed Its Name To Promote A Video Game?

Answer: Saccharin

There’s something quite curious about the discoveries of artificial sweeteners—a significant number of them were discovered by accident. The first artificial sweetener ever discovered was discovered entirely by accident and thanks to lax lab safety practices.

Constantine Fahlberg, a German scientist, discovered Saccharin—the first artificial sweetener—in 1879. He was doing research entirely unrelated to sweeteners but was instead conducting research on coal tar derivative products. Specifically, Fahlberg was searching for a way to turn by-products of the coal industry into something profitable. Fahlberg, in an 1886 interview with Scientific America, explained how he stumbled upon the sweetener:

“How did I discover saccharin?” he said. “Well, it was partly by accident and partly by study. I had worked a long time on the compound radicals and substitution products of coal tar, and had made a number of scientific discoveries, that are, so far as I know, of no commercial value. One evening I was so interested in my laboratory that I forgot about my supper till quite late, and then rushed off for a meal without stopping to wash my hands. I sat down, broke a piece of bread, and put it to my lips. It tasted unspeakably sweet. I did not ask why it was so, probably because I thought it was some cake or sweetmeat. I rinsed my mouth with water, and dried my moustache with my napkin, when, to my surprise the napkin tasted sweeter than the bread. Then I was puzzled. I again raised my goblet, and, as fortune would have it, applied my mouth where my fingers had touched it before. The water seemed syrup. It flashed on me that I was the cause of the singular universal sweetness, and I accordingly tasted the end of my thumb, and found it surpassed any confectionery I had ever eaten. I saw the whole thing at once. I had discovered some coal tar substance which out-sugared sugar. I dropped my dinner, and ran back to the laboratory. There, in my excitement, I tasted the contents of every beaker and evaporating dish on the table. Luckily for me, none contained any corrosive or poisonous liquid.”

Fahlberg was hardly exaggerating about the sweetness of his accidental discovery. Saccharin, by weight, is 300 times sweeter than sugar. What amounted to a dusting of powdered sugar on his fingertips was the equivalent of dozens of spoons of sugar distilled down into an intensely sweet surprise.

Fahlberg would hardly be the last in a line of researchers who accidentally stumbled upon artificial sweeteners in the pursuit of other research. In 1965 James M. Schlatter discovered Aspartame when, in the course of synthesizing anti-ulcer drugs, he licked his finger to pick up a piece of paper and it tasted extraordinarily sweet. In 1976 researchers Leslie Hough and Shashikant Phadnis, at Queen Elizabeth College, were working with sucrose. During their research into chlorinated sugar compounds, Hough asked Phadnis to test a particular compound. Phadnis misunderstood the request and, in a rather trusting manner, tasted it instead—accidentally discovering yet another artificial sugar in the process.

Thanks to the lax hand washing routines of multiple scientists over the last century and a half you can enjoy sweet treats and a dash of “sugar” in your coffee guilt free.

Image Public Domain.