If someone dared you to eat coal tar, would you? Would you happily sip it down or gleefully sprinkle it on your morning cereal?

Probably not. After all, you'd have to be crazy to knowingly consume something as awful sounding as coal tar.

But what if I told you it was sweet? Really sweet. As in 700 times sweeter than sugar. Would that matter?

Before you answer an emphatic "no," consider this. Not only have you likely eaten or drank this mysterious coal-derived sweetener, it graces virtually every table in restaurants across the country.

Who is Consuming Coal Tar...

This sweet mess is saccharin (think Sweet and Low). It was first produced in 1878 by a chemist working on coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University. After working with his compounds all day, he discovered that his hand tasted "sweet."1 Not really sure how it came about that he tasted his hand, but there it is.

Today, saccharin is commonly manufactured by combining anthranilic acid (used among other things as a corrosive agent for metal) with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and ammonia. Yes, that's right. Chlorine and ammonia.

In fact, that particular group of chemicals sounds more like a recipe for a household cleaner than a sweetener. And yet, millions upon millions of people consume saccharin every year.

But what most people don't realize is that saccharin has had a rather bumpy road ever since its discovery.

As far back as 1907, the USDA began taking a closer look at saccharin through the Pure Food and Drug Act (a precursor of sorts to the FDA). Mr. Harvey Wiley, the director of the bureau of chemistry for the USDA during that time, felt saccharin should not be used in foods. In fact, he is quoted as saying, "[Saccharin is] a coal tar product totally devoid of food value and extremely injurious to health."2

And the USDA and FDA have flip-flopped virtually ever since. In 1911, they stated that foods with saccharin were "adulterated," then in 1912, said that saccharin wasn't harmful.

In 1948-49, there was much discussion about the dangers of saccharin, but in 1969, an investigation into those claims found little scientific proof to warrant the concerns. Yet, there must have been something because three years later, in 1972, the FDA tried to ban saccharin.3 They failed, of course, which is why saccharin is still available and being consumed by thousands of people every day.

One of the key reasons for the FDA's concerns was that in 1970, researchers learned that saccharin caused bladder cancer in lab rats.4 I'll discuss this a bit more in a moment, but suffice it to say that this created quite a problem for saccharin and the FDA.

See, back in 1958, Congress added a little clause to the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act, mandating that the FDA "prohibits the use of compounds found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal, or if it is found after tests which are appropriated for the evaluation of the safety of the food additive, to induce cancer in man or animal."5

But, instead of taking it off the market, the FDA simply added a warning to the label of foods containing saccharin stating that it caused bladder cancer in rats.

And the Controversy Continues...

You'd think that would be the end of it, wouldn't you? Cancer causing, necessary warning label, etc. Well, you'd be wrong. Really wrong.

In late 2000, the FDA removed the warning labels after studies showed that the rats have a completely different chemical make up to their urine. And it is this particular combination of high pH, high calcium phosphate, and high protein that interacts with saccharin and damages the bladder walls. And this damage is what leads to increased cancer risk, not the saccharin itself.6,7

And the FDA bought it. In fact, by 2010, saccharin was been taken off nearly every carcinogenic list, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program to the EPA's list of hazardous products.

But should it have been?

Big Problems...

Let's start with cancer.

A 1997 report from the Center for the Science in Public Interest felt that it would be "highly imprudent for the National Toxicology Program to delist saccharin." They believed that doing so "would give the public a false sense of security, remove any incentive for further testing, and result in greater exposure to this probable carcinogen in tens of millions of people, including children (indeed, fetuses)."

And with good reason.

As I discussed, there are the rodent studies showing that saccharin caused bladder cancer, not to mention vascular and lung cancer. It also increased the risk of uterine cancer in female mice.8

This was based on several studies, including one from 1978, which found that rats given saccharin developed bladder cancer that was quite aggressive.9 Additionally, rats exposed while in the womb were even more likely to develop cancer than those exposed immediately after birth.

Researchers in that study concluded, "Saccharin is carcinogenic for the urinary bladder in rats and mice, and most likely is carcinogenic in human beings."

But the pro-saccharin people argued that rats and people aren't the same. Agreed.

There in lies the issue. No one is willing to do a double blind, placebo-controlled study with saccharin, as it would be imprudent to knowingly place someone at risk. But there are several case-controlled studies showing a definitive link between saccharin consumption and increased risk of cancer.

First of all, the National Cancer Institute noted a 10 percent increase in the incidence of bladder cancer 1973 and 1994.8 (Remember, the FDA tried to ban saccharin in 1972.)

An analysis of nearly 1,900 cases found that heavy use of artificial sweeteners was associated with increased risk of bladder cancer.10

A second analysis of more than 600 cases also found an increased risk of cancer in Canadian men who consumed either more artificial sweeteners or consumed them for a longer period of time.11

Finally, a British study found that English women who consume more than 10 tablets of artificial sweeteners (mostly saccharin) also had a higher risk of cancer.12

Thanks, but no thanks.

Wait, There's More...

As if cancer weren't bad enough, saccharin has also been tied to a variety of allergic reactions, including headaches, breathing issues, skin rashes, and diarrhea.13 Worst yet, it is still being added to some infant formulas! Give me a break!

And then there's the dieters' and diabetic dilemma. Or perhaps irony is a better word.

A 2008 study from Appetite found "a significant increase of plasma insulin concentration was apparent after stimulation with saccharin."14 And they didn't even ingest the saccharin! They just rinsed their mouth out with it.

As we all know, increased insulin levels is a risk factor for both obesity and diabetes. Probably NOT the side effect dieters and diabetics are going for when they choose a sugar-free product.

Use Your Brain...

So, what do you do? You have a sweetener that is used in hundreds of products in the United States, and is deemed "safe" by the FDA.

But it clearly has documented health risks and concerns, ranging from allergies to cancer to increased insulin levels.

So what do you do? Blindly trust the government and consume away? I say no.

And the reason is pretty simple. Chemicals, chemicals, chemicals.

There is nothing natural about saccharin. Nothing. And there's certainly nothing natural about the side effects it has been proven to cause.

I say, just say no and step away. Far away.

If you must have a bit of sweetness, opt instead for stevia. This herb comes in both powdered and liquid forms and is a great choice to sweeten coffee, oatmeal, or even give mineral water a flavor boost. Best of all, it's chemical- and toxin-free.

And no coal tar in sight.


1Myers, RL and Myers, RL. The 100 most important chemical compounds: a reference guide. 2007. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

2Sugar: A Cautionary Tale.

3Priebem, PM and Kauffman, GB. Making governmental policy under conditions of scientific uncertainty: A century of controversy about saccharin in congress and the laboratory. Minerva 1980;18(4):556 - 74.

4Price, JM et al. Bladder tumors in rats fed cyclohexylamine or high doses of a mixture of cyclamate and saccharin. Science. 1970 Feb 20;167(921):1131-2.

5FD&C 409(C) (3) (A).

6Whysner, J and Williams, GM. Saccharin mechanistic data and risk assessment: urine composition, enhanced cell proliferation, and tumor promotion. Pharmacol Ther. 1996;71(1-2):225 - 52.

7Dybing, E. Development and implementation of the IPCS conceptual framework for evaluating mode of action of chemical carcinogens. Toxicology 2002 Dec;181-182:121 - 5.

8Saccharin still poses cancer risk, scientists tell federal agency. CSPI press release. October 28, 1997.

9Reuber, MD. Carcinogenicity of saccharin. Environ Health Perspect. 1978 Aug;25:173-200.

10Sturgeon, SR et al. Associations between bladder cancer risk factors and tumor stage and grade at diagnosis. Epidemiology. 1994 Mar;5(2):218-25.

11Howe, GR and Burch, JD. Artificial sweeteners in relation to the epidemiology of bladder cancer. Nutr Cancer. 1981;2(4):213-6.

12Morrison, AS et al. Artificial sweeteners and bladder cancer in Manchester, U.K., and Nagoya, Japan. Br J Cancer. 1982 Mar;45(3):332-6.

13Stewart, D. Risks of Saccharin. eHow. March 31, 2011.

14Just, T et al. Cephalic phase insulin release in healthy humans after taste stimulation? Appetite. 2008 Nov;51(3):622-7.