Recently The Washington Post published a column on saccharin by Daniel S. Greenberg ("Saccharin Peddlers ...," op-ed, March 20), which made several inaccurate allegations about the safety and benefits of saccarhin.
Saccharin has a history of 80 years of safe human use. Studies involving more than 60,000 humans have shown no association with bladder cancer. Its benefits have been widely chronicled by health professionals, the scientific community and the American consumer.
On Feb. 27, the independent American Council on Science and Health published a comprehensive report that concluded, "There is no evidence to indicate that a saccharin, at current levels of use, causes cancer or any other disease in human beings." The sweetener has also received support from many other scientists since the controversy began in 1977.
Since Greenberg identifies the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) saccharin committee report as "the grandest expert survey yet conducted," it is instructive to review what that report said about saccharin's safety and benefits. With respect to safety, the NAS report said:
"In the single-generation studies saccharin did not induce cancer in any organ."
"Time trend studies provide no evidence that saccharin use is necessarily associated with cancer."
"Several investigators have studied the possibility that saccharin is a concarcinogen or promoter. Their results have been equivocal . . . saccharin does not promote bladder cancer when given through drinking water."
"No evidence of biotransformation (metabolism) has been demonstrated . . . most carcinogenic agents require metabolic conversion to active derivatives."
The absence of metobolism means that saccharin lacks a major characteristic of virtually all chemical carcinogens.
In summary, the case against saccharin still rests on controversial experiments in which the most sensitive strain of rat was fed the human equivatlent of the saccharin in 1,250 cans of diet soft drink or more each day over two generations. Even then, only some of the male rats of the second generation developed bladder tumors.
Very few substances have been as thoroughly tested as saccharin. Only a handful have undergone multi-generation experiments. The evidence of safety coming from the research undertaken to date is impressive.
With respect to benefits, the NAS report noted:
"The strong preponderance of practitioners' opinion that favors the use of non-nutritive sweeteners in weight reduction or treatment of diebetes."
"Some special groups, e.g., juvenile diabetics, may be particularly affected if low-calorie foods and beverages that permit them a more normal lifestyle were removed without suitable replacement."
"If saccharin were removed from the market, a significant segment of the population may experience psychological stress of a transient or long-term nature."
"Its daily use by several generations of Americans . . . has made saccharin an integral part of the American lifestyle."
Greenberg cites a study by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on the usefulness of special foods for diabetics as impugning saccharin benefits. Quoting from that report: "Low-calorie soft drinks and water-packed fruits may be useful in the diet of persons with diabeties."
The American Diabetes Association has supported saccharin's usefulness to diabetics from the beginning of the current controversy. The association formally reiterated that support following publication of the first NAS report last November.
As for Greenberg's suggestion that reducing sugar consumption is bad strategy for someone on a weight-reduction program, we suggest those interested in this theory discuss it with their physicians. A 1978 survey of health professionals showed that 90 percent of physicians and nutritionists believe the availability of saccharin makes it easier for patients who must restrict caloric or sugar intake to maintain their dietary regimen.
To bolster his assault on saccharin, Greenberg maligns the Calorie Control Council, which, as the association for all sectors of the low-calorie industry, has participated in the current debate. Such ad hominem attacks contribute little to the optimal resolution of food-safety issues. Instead, they polarize debate by (inaccurately) sterotyping the participants, leaving the reader to choose his camp without regard for the real issues under discussion.
In conclusion, it seems regrettable that the debate over saccharin has declined to diatribes that generate so much heat with so little light. A more careful reading of the research on saccharin by Greenberg might have provided some illumination without the heat of misinformation. One authority that did conduct a thorough review of the scientific data available on saccharin, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, concluded "most readers will find the case against saccharin unimpressive."