Sugar substitutes go sour in the '70s

Sugar had calories and caused cavities, but for years there didn't seem to be a better substitute without problems of its own.

First cyclamate, then saccharin got yanked from store shelves in 1969 and 1977

Health minister John Munro says Canada will come to its own conclusion after the U.S. bans the artificial sweetener. 1:53

Sugar makes life just a bit sweeter, but it has a downside: its calories can lead to weight gain, and it causes cavities.

Beginning in the 1960s, sodium cyclamate seemed like the answer. Soft drink manufacturers used the artificial sweetener to make low-calorie, sugar-free soft drinks and freestanding tabletop sweeteners.

That all came to a halt in October 1969 when lab tests showed that cyclamates — as sodium cyclamate-related sweetner products were commonly referred to — posed a cancer risk, and authorities in the United States acted quickly to ban the substance.

In Canada, Minister of Health and Welfare John Munro was more cautious than his U.S. counterparts, with respect to a potential ban.

"We've been running lab tests and experiments on this ourselves," he said. "Our experiments have not had this result."

A ginger ale manufacturer takes dramatic steps to keep the artificial sweetener off store shelves. 0:56

Search and destroy for soda 

In Toronto, the makers of a cyclamate-sweetened diet version of Canada Dry ginger ale staged the dramatic destruction of its stocks.

A forklift dumped cases of the soda before a bulldozer plowed through the piles.

"Their thinking was that the damage had already been done," explained reporter Hal Jones.

"Publicity given the the decision of the government of the United States was sufficient to make Canadians think twice before buying anything containing cyclamates."

A look at some of the products on Canadian store shelves in 1969 that include cyclamates. 2:29

Not just for diet soft drinks

With cyclamates in the headlines, the CBC-TV show Take 30 took a closer look at the sweetener and the products that contained it.

"For the most part in Canada we have diet foods and they are well labelled," said Joan Watson, a radio host who would go on to become the first host of CBC-TV's Marketplace. "Anything else that cyclamates show up in are just very, very small quantities." 

Watson went on to demonstrate some of the foods that contained cyclamates: a can of Tab diet soda, canned fruit, coffee sweetener, a jar of pickles, and a packet of Kool-Aid that was ostensibly aimed at grown-ups.

She then demonstrated some of the items she had purchased at a Canadian grocery store that fell under the five-gram cyclamate limit then considered safe in the U.S.

Eventually, Canada banned cyclamates in soft drinks in December 1969 and in all other foods effective Sept. 1, 1970.  

The second sweet saviour goes sour

The Canadian government announces that most forms of saccharin will be banned from store shelves. 2:04

With a prohibition on cyclamates, food and drink manufacturers embraced another artificial sweetener. 

Saccharin was first synthesized in 1879, was 200 times sweeter than sugar, and had no calories.

But in 1977, tests showed saccharin was associated with cancer of the bladder in lab rats. 

In March of that year, the CBC's John Blackstone reported that the Canadian government was banning soft drinks with saccharin as of July 1, 1977. Foods with added saccharin would be forbidden four months later.

"Saccharin as a single-ingredient drug ... will still be available in drugstores, and it will not be displayed on the shelves," added Blackstone.

Diet soft drinks accounted for 10 per cent of the soda market, about $52 million a year.

Without another ready substitute, manufacturers protested the ban.

"These results have been achieved at a very high level of consumption by test animals," said an unnamed industry representative. "One must ask the question, is the public at large ever likely to be exposed to that kind of risk?" 

According to the study that prompted the ban, a human would have to consume the equivalent of 800 cans of diet drinks a day to risk getting cancer from saccharin. 

In the U.S., the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences removed it from a list of known cancer-causing substances in 2000.