Saccharin: A Chemical between Food and Drug
Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture by Julia Stone, Cain Fellow at the Science History Institute.
Beginning with its emergence in the Progressive era, saccharin has been a controversial sweetener in the United States. Unlike many of the controversial additives of the early 20th century, such as the preservatives benzoate of soda and borax, debates around saccharin reemerged in the postwar era, culminating in its dramatic ban in 1977.
Across this 80-year span a central tension in saccharin’s identity persisted. Although often used as a sugar substitute by households and food manufacturers to cut costs, it also had significant medical applications in the dietetic treatment of diabetes and obesity. In the postwar era, as ideas about the connection between body weight and health transformed American cultures of dieting, this tension took new form. Focusing on the debates of the 1970s, this talk will explore how saccharin crossed the line between food and drug and the significant implications this held for the federal government’s authority to regulate its use. Ultimately, this case lets us explore the shaping of the cultural authority of science and the regulatory powers of the state when faced with demands for consumer choice.
For an overview of the early history of saccharin and its two major episodes of controversy, see Jesse Hicks’ Distillations feature titled “The Pursuit of Sweet.”
About the Speaker
Julia Stone, a PhD candidate in the Program in History of Science at Princeton University, is interested in food politics, scientific authority, and consumerism. Her dissertation, “Sweet Deception: A History of the Health Politics of Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners in the United States,” will trace ideas about the healthfulness of sugar and artificial sweeteners across scientific literature, government regulations, and dietary advice from the Progressive era to the rise of aspartame in the 1980s. She graduated from Barnard College in 2014, magna cum laude, with a BA in physics and French literature.
About the Series
Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.