The first artificial sweetener had a terrible name: “sugar of lead.” The ancient Romans invented it, since they craved sweetness but had to make do with honey. Sugar had not yet been imported from India. So they boiled wine in lead pots, which concentrated the fruit sugars of the grapes and added sweetness from the lead.
The Romans called this mixture sapa or defrutum, and added it to all kinds of food and drink. Sugar of lead was never as popular in England, though it was used there for medicinal purposes and to sweeten wine into the 1800s. Before the 17th century, it was called by its medieval Latin name, saccharum saturni (“sugar of Saturn”; in alchemy, the planet Saturn is associated with lead). The word sugar didn’t enter the English language until the 13th century, after crusaders had brought this miraculous “sweet salt” back from the Middle East.
Humans were more than happy with sugar for 1,000 years or so, until a Baltimore chemist accidentally invented another artificial sweetener in 1878. Constantin Fahlberg was working with coal tar in his lab, and one night he went home with an unknown chemical on his hands. When he picked up and bit into his dinner roll, he found it incredibly sweet and realized that something in his lab was absolutely delicious. He went back and tasted everything in there until he identified the compound, which he named saccharin.
This was an inauspicious name, though not as bad as calling something sugar of lead.
Saccharine was already an English word – a term for sweetness that has a negative connotation. It means “overly sweet; sweet to a sickening degree.” Perhaps Fahlberg chose the name because his chemical is indeed “sickly sweet” – it is 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar.
Its negative connotations were a fairly recent development, however, having appeared somewhere around the mid-19th century. Saccharine had originally just meant “sugary,” and this was nearly always considered to be a good thing. For centuries, it was almost impossible to have too much sugar. Sugar had been a rare and costly “spice,” as it was called, like cinnamon or nutmeg, imported from far away in small quantities and enjoyed only by the very wealthy. With the colonization of the Americas and the use of slave labor, it became cheaper and more widely available. By the late 19th century, mass-produced jam contained twice as much sugar as fruit – it was saccharine in its sickly-sweet sense indeed.
In 1700, the average person in Britain ate 4 pounds of sugar a year. An American today consumes about 152 pounds, plus artificial sweeteners like saccharin. Thank goodness sugar of lead is no longer one of them!