Saccharin, which is identified on food and juice labels in the European Union as E954, was the original artificial sweetener. Saccharin takes its name from the term "saccharine," meaning "excessively sweet." This sweetener was discovered in 1871 by Dr. Constantine Fahlberg, then a research associate of the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Dr. Fahlberg had been working with coal tar when he happened to lick his finger before he washed his hand. He noticed a sweet flavor and determined that the source of the sweetness was the chemical we now call saccharin. Saccharin became a popular sugar substitute in the 1890's but was almost taken off the market in 1911. Sugar shortages during World War I and World War II, however, ensured its place in food manufacturing world wide.
Saccharin has some benefits for food manufacturing that later artificial sweeteners still don't meet. It is very easy to store. It does not react with other food ingredients and is extremely shelf-stable. Soft drinks sweetened with aspartame (Nutrasweet) often have saccharin added in case the can of soda is stored so long that the aspartame breaks down, so the drink will always have some sweet flavor. In countries where cyclamates are legal, cyclamates and saccharin are used together, each to mask the other's aftertaste.
Aftertaste is a major drawback of using saccharin. Large amounts of saccharin leave a metallic after taste. Millions of home juicers nonetheless find that a single packet of Sweet and Low (the world's most popular brand of saccharin) is enough to mask the tartness of freshly squeezed lemons in lemonade. But is saccharin really safe?
The first move to ban saccharin in the United States came in 1907 on a recommendation from Dr. Harvey Wiley, then the director of food chemistry for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). President Theodore Roosevelt had championed the Food and Drug Act to stop the wholesale contamination of food and beverages that had been common in the United States before the twentieth century. In a time when many Americans still did not have enough to eat, Wiley moved to ban saccharin on the grounds that it substituted a potentially nutritious food, sugar, at that time needed as a source of calories, with a product with no nutritional value. President Roosevelt, however, was a regular user of saccharin himself, and had Wiley sacked.
In the early 1970's, the US FDA ordered a warning label to be put on saccharin after experiments showed that it might cause bladder cancer in laboratory animals. The warning label was removed, however, after further testing showed that the carcinogenic effect of saccharin was due to high pH and high calcium levels that occur in rodents, such as lab rats, but not in human beings. Since 2000, saccharin has been sold in the United States and around the world without warning labels.
But that has never meant that saccharin is good for you.
It's possible that "heavy use" of all kinds of artificial sweeteners can increase your risk of bladder cancer. You can lower that risk of bladder cancer, however, even if you can't break your addiction to diet soft drinks, just by drinking more water and freshly squeezed juice. For the bladder, dilution of toxic substances is better than doing nothing at all.
And if you are just trying to save calories, it's probably a good idea to develop a taste for honest-to-goodness real sugar in very small amounts. Saccharin-sweetened juices and artificially sweetened soft drinks are not what packs on the pounds. It's reaching for a beverage that's sweetened with real sugar without thinking when you get into the habit of drinking something sweet. It's far better to take mindful control over your refreshment habits and to drink a naturally sweetened beverage when you want something sweet—but keeping in mind that you shouldn't necessarily have another or make a habit of it.