What to Know About Saccharin

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on February 12, 2024
3 min read

Chances are you’ve heard about or used saccharin before. ‌Saccharin has been around for nearly 150 years. Despite some controversy in the 1980s, it's now an approved zero-calorie sweetener that's 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar.

Saccharin is one of the most affordable low-calorie sweeteners available. It’s popular as a zero-calorie substitute for sugar in cooking. It’s also used as a sweetener in low-calorie processed foods such as fruit juices, candies, jams, jellies, and cookies.

Saccharin is sold in a variety of brand names. It has a characteristic metallic aftertaste, which manufacturers have tried to cover with:

  • Cream of tartar
  • Lemon flavor
  • Pectin
  • Ribonucleotides
  • Glycine
  • Gentian root
  • Artificial sweeteners – aspartame, cyclamate

Saccharin peaked in popularity right after World War II. It remained popular until the early 1970s, when studies on laboratory rats linked the sweetener with a form of bladder cancer. Congress then required that a warning be placed on all saccharin products until scientists could provide proof of safety for use in humans.

‌Even though later experiments showed that saccharin did not have the same effect in people as it had in rats, the FDA for a time banned the sweetener and all products that contained it.

However in 2000, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health finally decided to lift the ban and remove the warning label from all saccharin-based products sold in the U.S. for good. 

‌Researchers still don't entirely rule out saccharin’s possible cancer-causing effects. Still, you would need to take in a very high dose in order to experience the same effects as laboratory rats. You would have to drink about 800 diet sodas sweetened with saccharin every day in order to see a negative effect.

Currently, the FDA recommends keeping daily saccharin intake below 2.3 milligrams per pound of body weight. 

Weight loss aid. Using this zero-calorie sweetener instead of natural sugar may help to prevent obesity.  By eating foods with lower-calorie saccharin instead of foods with higher-calorie sugars, you can control the number of calories you take in.

Cavity prevention. Natural sugar is one of the most significant causes of oral health problems. When it breaks down inside your mouth, the bacteria in plaque releases acids that damage your enamel.

Saccharin, on the other hand, doesn't ferment in the mouth. Eating saccharin instead of sugar can help protect your teeth from cavities, as long as you keep an eye on the other ingredients in your food and maintain good oral hygiene habits. 

Possible blood sugar regulation. The human body can’t metabolize saccharin. Therefore, your blood sugar won’t spike after consuming it. This characteristic makes saccharin seem ideal for people with diabetes, but research on the actual effects of saccharin on blood sugar lack conclusive evidence so far.

Gut bacteria imbalance. One disadvantage to using saccharin is that some studies show that large amounts of saccharin may negatively affect the balance of bacteria in your gut. Microbial changes in the intestines may lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, and – in rare cases – cancer.

About 15% of kids over 2 years old eat non-nutritive sweeteners, including saccharin. Despite negative associations, allowing children to eat non-nutritive sweeteners is not connected with health risks. Saccharin might even have the same long-term benefits in children as it does in adults, helping control body weight and blood sugar levels. 

Unlike sugar, saccharin doesn’t seem to increase cravings for sweet foods. Although more research is still needed, artificial sweeteners don't seem to release dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals that could trigger addiction in children in the same way that table sugar does.

However, as can happen with other foods and additives, eating saccharin too early in life can prevent children from gaining oral tolerance to it. This can result in a higher risk of developing allergies to this non-nutritive sweetener.

Ask your pediatrician whether it’s OK for your toddler to have saccharin.