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Sweets for the Sweet: Saccharin, Knowledge, and the Contemporary Regulatory Nexus

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2011

Alan I Marcus
Iowa State University


In 1977, the United States Congress forbade the Food and Drug Administration to outlaw use of the food additive saccharin as an artificial sweetener for a period of three years. Subsequent legislation extended the congressional ban. It remains in effect today. Congress's saccharin action neatly represented late twentieth-century federal regulatory policy. The process had become decidedly antibureaucratic and ultimately democratic. Forces both for saccharin's prohibition and for its continued use outlined and debated their positions in public, letting their arguments contend in the marketplace of ideas. Following the conduct of this de facto national plebiscite, duly elected representatives weighed the respective cases and selected the course that their constituents seemed to favor.

Copyright © The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. 1997

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1. For a detailed study of risk-benefit analysis and its relationships to scientists and scientific inquiry in a single instance, see Marcus, Alan I, Cancer from Beef: DES, Federal Food Regulation, and Consumer Confidence (Baltimore, 1994).Google Scholar

2. Young's, James HarveyPure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 (Princeton, 1989)Google Scholar is the place to begin. See also Temin, Peter, Taking Your Medicine: Drug Regulation in the United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), 2737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3. For regulation in the 1920s and after, see Jackson, Charles O., Food and Drug Legislation in the New Deal (Princeton, 1970)Google Scholar; and Young, James Harvey, “Food and Drug Enforcers in the 1920s: Restraining and Educating Business,” Business and Economic History, 2d series 21 (1992): 119–28.Google Scholar

4. See, for example, Marcus, Alan I, “The Newest Knowledge of Nutrition: Wise Burroughs, DES, and Modern Meat,” Agricultural History 67 (Summer 1993): 6685Google ScholarPubMed, and The Wisdom of the Body Politic: The Changing Nature of Publicly Sponsored American Agricultural Research Since the 1830s,” Agricultural History 62 (Spring 1988)Google Scholar: especially 21–24; and Temin, Taking Your Medicine, 58–88.

5. White, Suzanne R., “Chemistry and Controversy: Regulating the Use of Chemicals in Foods, 1883–1959,” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1994, 211–36Google Scholar; and Crone, Hugh D., Chemicals and Society: A Guide to the New Chemical Age (Cambridge, 1986).Google Scholar

6. White, “Chemistry and Controversy,” 254–361; Marcus, Cancer from Beef, 17–25.

7. Marcus, Cancer from Beef, 34–44; Larrick, George P., “The New Food-Additives Law,” Food Drag Cosmetic Law Journal 13 (1958): 634–48Google Scholar; Dunn, Charles Wesley, “Fundamental Progress of the Pure-Food Law,” Food Drug Cosmetic Law Journal 13 (1958): 615–33Google Scholar; and “An Act to Protect the Public Health by Amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to Prohibit the Use in Food of Additives Which Have Not Been Adequately Tested to Establish Their Safety” (Public Law 85–929), 71 U.S. Statutes (1958): 1784–89.

8. White, “Chemistry and Controversy,” 362–99.

9. This volume documents the onset of that sort of thinking. Its essays are a testament to the persuasiveness of that approach. For the 1960s generally, see, for example, O'Neill, William, Coming Apart: An Informal History of the 1960s (Chicago, 1971)Google Scholar; and Dickstein, Morris L., Gates of Eden: American Culture in the 1960s (New York, 1987)Google Scholar. Also of use is the provocative Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1978).Google Scholar

10. “Government Officially Announces Cyclamate Sweeteners Will be Taken Off Market Early Next Year,” New York Times, October 19, 1969, 58.

11. 37 Federal Register 2437 (1972); and National Academy of Sciences, Safety of Saccharin and Sodium Saccharmin the Human Diet (1974)Google Scholar. Several persons have written about the regulation of saccharin before the FDA announced its intention to ban the substance. See Young, James Harvey, “Saccharin; A Bitter Regulatory Controversy,” in Evans, Frank B. and Pinkett, Harold T., eds., Research in the Administration of Public Policy (Washington, D.C., 1975), 3949Google Scholar; Richard A. Merrill and Michael R. Taylor, “Saccharin: A Case Study of Government Regulation of Environmental Carcinogens,” Elizabeth M. Whelan and William R Havender, “Saccharin and the Public Interest,” and Schultz, William B., “The Bitter Aftertaste of Saccharin,” all in Agriculture and Human Values 3 (Winter-Spring 1986): 3373CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 74–82, and 83–90, respectively. See also Peter Barton Hutt, “Individual Freedom and Government Control of Food Safety: Saccharin and Food Additives,” and Wolfe, Sidney M., “The Conflict Between Individual Freedom and Social Control: Saccharin and Food Additives,” both in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 329 (1979): 221–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar and 242–45, respectively.

12. General Accounting Office, “Need to Resolve Safety Questions on Saccharin,” HRD- 76–156 (1976); and 42 Federal Register 19996, 20000 (1977). See also Cerra, Frances, “Questions on Saccharin Are Still Not Resolved,” New York Times, October 20, 1976, 34.Google Scholar

13. Mintz, Morton, “U.S. Will Ban Saccharin,” Washington Post, March 10, 1977, A-1 and A-11Google Scholar. For Minn and the New Journalism generally, see Marcus, Cancer from Beef, 75–76.

14. Congressional Record, 95th cong., lstsess. (1977): 7022, 7461, 7499, 7639, 7645–46, 7674,7687, 7697–98, 7705, 7783–84, 7798–99, 7823, 7836, 7923–24, 8063–64, 8067–68, 8104, 8114–15, 8116, 8118, 8381–828383, 8384–8385, 8433, 8615, 8859, 8882–83, 8941, 9061, 9392–94, 9442–43, 9507, 9508, 9712–13, 9726, 9817, 9832–33, 9949–50, 10267–69, 10271–80, 10290, 10336, 10341–43, 10538, 10580–81, 10969–70, 12106–07, 12388, 12390, 12715, 12747–50, 13381–82, 15261–62, 15662–64, 16500–01, 17349–53, 1792, 19792, 20483–86, 20742–43, 20941–42, 21156, 21446–61, 22332, 28360, 28582–83, 29253–65, 29371–81, 29389–96, 30013–14, 33970–72, 33917–28, 35382–83, 36971–78, 37145 and 38330–31; and Office of Technology Assessment, Cancer Testing Technology and Saccharin (October 1977).Google Scholar

15. Carper, Jean, “Aspartame: Has Sugar Met Its Match?” Washington Post, July 23, 1981Google Scholar: E–1 and E–19; and “Aspartame: Sweet and Sour,” Washington Post, July 1, 1983: D–5.