Final Public Oral Exam: Jay Stone

Sweet Deception: A History of the Health Politics of Saccharin in the United States
Thursday, March 30, 2023, 1:00 pm3:00 pm


Event Description


Erika L. Milam, co-adviser
Keith Wailoo, co-adviser
Angela N. H. Creager
Benjamin R. Cohen, Lafayette University


Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener still commonly used today, has been at the center of controversy for most of its commercial life. Since the late nineteenth century, there has been a protracted debate over whether it represents a marvel of modern science or the epitome of its dangers. Is it a damaging and deceptive substitute for sugar or a beneficial replacement that can help enhance health? Efforts to resolve the saccharin debate reveal the complex web of negotiations around its identity between various forms of scientific expertise, political authority, industry interests, and consumers. This dissertation argues a central issue at the core of these debates was whether to categorize saccharin as a food or drug, a previously overlooked tension in its identity. Using a combination of scientific journals, popular magazines and newspapers, advertisements, medical and dietary advice manuals, government documents, and industry- related archival sources, this dissertation shows how efforts to resolve the saccharin debate repeatedly resulted in compromise and ambiguity.

The saccharin controversy spans several important episodes in the creation of the federal regulatory system for consumer protection. The first two chapters trace saccharin’s arc from the Progressive era efforts to address the problem of food and drug adulteration through the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 to the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The third and fourth chapters focus on saccharin in the second half of the twentieth century when its popularity exploded as a dieting product. The climactic moment in saccharin’s history was the FDA’s deeply controversial attempt to ban it in 1977, which was ultimately blocked by Congress after an unprecedented storm of consumer protest. Together these episodes show that debates about saccharin were never just about saccharin, but much broader, fundamental concerns for danger and deception in the marketplace for food and drugs, including the contentious issue of the appropriate role of government and experts in serving as gatekeepers to that market.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Questions? Please contact Lee Horinko.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Lee Horinko
Area of Interest
Cultural History
Gender & Sexuality
Intellectual History
Race & Ethnicity
19th Century
20th Century
United States
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense