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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2011

Ex-Toledoan gains sweet vindication

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Toledo-born inventor of the modern process for making saccharin — the artificial sweetener — has gained some sweet posthumous vindication four decades since cancer-stricken lab rats spurred fears about the product.

Oliver F. Senn led a group of local chemical engineers who in 1949 devised a way to synthesize the sugar substitute, eliminating its bitter metallic aftertaste. Originally called the "Senn process," the method is now practiced around the world as the "Maumee process," a reference to the former Maumee Chemical Co. of East Toledo that Mr. Senn and the other chemists founded.

Their discovery opened the way for a variety of better-tasting calorie-free foods containing saccharin, including TAB diet cola.

But the Senn team's legacy was marred in the aftermath of controversial 1970s studies showing that massive quantities of saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory rats, particularly males.

Mr. Senn strongly believed in saccharin's safety, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried to ban its human consumption. "He said, ‘That's ridiculous. They're making the assumption based on an equation that doesn't apply to people," Suzanne Senn Pitt, 64, the engineer's daughter, said this month in a phone interview from her home in Eureka, Calif. "He said they'll screw this up for years, and then someday after I'm dead, they'll come out and they'll say ‘oops,' but they won't say it as loudly as they should."

Time bore out the chemist's prophecy. Seven years after Mr. Senn's 1993 death, amid mounting new evidence of the sweetener's safety, government regulators removed the cancer warning labels that had covered saccharin food and beverage products since 1977.

And just last month, saccharin received a clean bill of health from the Environmental Protection Agency, which on Dec. 17 ruled to remove the sweetener from its hazardous substances list. The Calorie Control Council petitioned for the removal seven years ago.

"It's not a hazard. It's not dangerous, and so we felt that it needed to come off," said Lyn Nabors, the council's president.

Mr. Senn would have definitely agreed. "Dad said that from the very beginning," Mrs. Pitt said.

Toledo's unique connection to saccharin was forged in a vibrant post-war period of the city's industrial past, when the laboratories of a few local scientists would help transform the world food market for dieters and diabetics, creating scores of research and manufacturing jobs.

But Toledo would dramatically lose most of those jobs. The Maumee Chemical plant was destroyed on May 10, 1962, in what remains the second deadliest industrial fire in Toledo history. Clouds of multicolored smoke rolled across the city as the plant's chemicals burned. Ten people were killed and 46 were injured.

The production of saccharin and the firm's other chemical products was soon moved to a plant in suburban Cincinnati. The Cincinnati facility, now owned by PMC Specialties Group Inc., still makes saccharin but is fighting for existence against lower-cost Chinese competitors.

Something they nearly all have in common: the production method invented in Toledo.

"The Maumee process is being used in China … it's still being used across the world," said William Perry, a Seattle-based attorney who represents Chinese saccharin producers.

Ultrasweet

Saccharin is the oldest common artificial sweetener and tastes about 300 times sweeter than sugar. A white crystalline derivative of a coal-tar compound, it was discovered in 1879 by a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who forgot to wash his hands one evening and noticed a peculiar sweetness to his dinner bread. Saccharin is not absorbed or metabolized by humans and is excreted by the kidneys.

In addition to foods and beverages, saccharin can be found in some toothpastes, pet foods, pharmaceuticals, animal feed, and even metalworking fluids. For 70 years, the sole means of making saccharin was the Remsen-Fahlberg method. Science articles described the process as long and complex. It also left impurities responsible for a bad aftertaste.

Then a Toledo University associate professor named Oliver Senn spotted a money-making opportunity. His son-in-law, Bill Pitt, recalled this month how Mr. Senn and fellow chemists scoured the old Oil, Paint, and Drug Reporter trade journal to find chemicals with rising demand that they might capitalize on.

"They looked up something that not a lot of people made, and saccharin was there," said Mr. Pitt, himself a chemist.

Mr. Senn and his colleagues developed their simpler and more efficient process for synthesizing saccharin in 1949, according to Blade articles. Mrs. Pitt said the advance did wonders for the zero-calorie sweetener's flavor.

"What they made was a process where saccharin no longer gave you the bitter, bitter aftertaste that people will tell you about if they had saccharin in the '30s and '40s — it was terrible," said Mrs. Pitt. The old saccharin "tasted real sweet at first, and then it felt like your whole mouth was cast iron."

No ill effects

Two years later, Mr. Senn quit the university to work full time at Maumee Chemical, which had moved from Westwood Avenue to bigger quarters in the former Koerber Brewery plant at First and Oak streets in East Toledo, near the Maumee River.

The first 100-pound drums of Maumee saccharin rolled out in late 1951. The company explained to reporters that the FDA had fed the new saccharin to rats with no ill effects.

Mr. Senn was so confident about the sweetener's safety that he filled his car with saccharin-sweetened diabetic drinks whenever the cans went on sale for a penny, his daughter recalled. The drinks took up half of the family's garage.

"He said this is as nontoxic as the stuff they already have — it just tastes better," Mrs. Pitt said.

Mr. Senn left the company and his hometown in 1952 to join the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., where he remained until his retirement in 1974 as the institute's vice president of administration.

Relatives said that Mr. Senn was spending too much time at work. The Stanford job allowed a more balanced life.

"He had to make a decision about just what was really important, and that factory wasn't as important as his family," Mr. Pitt said.

One might consider his departure an early case of the so-called "brain drain" phenomenon that would haunt Toledo in later decades.

A graduate of what was then called St. John's High School, Mr. Senn held degrees from St. John's University and the University of Detroit and received his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan. He also spoke six languages, according to his daughter.

After leaving for California, Mr. Senn never again lived in Toledo.

The local factory

Maumee Chemical continued to grow despite a series of small industrial explosions in the 1950s. The firm produced a range of substances beyond saccharin, including chemicals for pharmaceuticals, tranquilizers, and diuretics. A 1960 article in Chemical and Engineering News noted the company's strong sales and facilities running at "120 percent" capacity to keep up with demand.

Then came the deadly explosion of 1962. The blast destroyed two-thirds of the main plant building and sent the entire three-story end of it cascading into the street. Houses shook and windows broke miles away. A man walking on Platt Street, 10 blocks away, was injured when the concussion heaved him into the air and slammed him to the pavement.

Maumee Chemical then moved all Toledo production to its new plant in St. Bernard, a Cincinnati suburb, and kept just research and corporate headquarters in the city. Fire investigators never ruled on the cause of the May 10 explosion, at least publicly. But Mr. Senn purportedly knew what had happened.

According to his son-in-law, Mr. Senn was told that a veteran plant foreman had mistakenly removed the lid of a ball mill, a type of grinder that contained hundreds of ball bearings used for grinding material into fine powder. Mr. Senn knew the foreman, who was killed instantly. The ball mill was unrelated to saccharin production.

"It went off like a bomb," Mr. Pitt said.

A bitter episode

Maumee Chemical's Cincinnati-area plant remained the prime producer of saccharin in the nation. In 1966, the company was bought by the Sherwin-Williams Co., which ran Maumee as a subsidiary.

By then, saccharin was a calorie counter's new best friend. In 1963, Coca-Cola introduced its first diet soda, TAB, which was initially sweetened with both saccharin and cyclamate, another artificial sweetener.

An article that year in Atlanta Magazine described how Coca-Cola programmed an IBM 1401 computer to formulate names for the new beverage. The two dozen finalists were output to an executive's desk, and from there emerged the name TAB.

Cyclamate was the first of the two sweeteners to be banned by the FDA over health concerns. Saccharin's turn came in 1977, after two separate studies had showed large quantities of the sweetener causing cancer in rats. But saccharin was by then the only no-calorie sweetener on the market, and dieters were outraged. Congress quickly passed a moratorium stopping the FDA ban.

Saturday Night Live, aired a comedy skit about the saccharin controversy featuring Gilda Radner.

"People, we cannot have this happen in America," says Ms. Radner's character, Rhonda Weiss. "I mean, I'm sorry about the lab animals, but the statistics prove that most guys prefer skinny girls with cancer over healthy girls with bulging thighs."

Instead, the FDA slapped warning labels on foods and beverages containing saccharin: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals." The labels remained for 22 years.

Sherwin-Williams closed Toledo's former Maumee Chemical lab in 1978. The Cincinnati plant was sold in 1985 to PMC Inc. of Sun Valley, Calif., and remained the nation's sole saccharin producer. The half-dozen or so other U.S. saccharin producers stopped their production in the early 1970s.

Faced with perception issues over the new warning labels, cola companies in the 1980s began replacing saccharin drinks with those containing a newer sweetener, aspartame. TAB drinkers flocked to the new Diet Coke.

TAB is today the only Coca-Cola beverage in a can that contains saccharin. The company continues to add saccharin to diet fountain drinks because it lasts longer than aspartame.

Making a comeback,

Alicia Schroeder, 41, of West Toledo, may be the most enthusiastic TAB drinker in Toledo.

She acquired a taste for the cola as a teenager and now drinks about four cans a day. She finds her TAB on the bottom shelves of the soft drink aisles at some local Kroger and Meijer stores.

"Every time I drink it, if someone sees me they say, 'I didn't know they still made that stuff,'" Ms. Schroeder said. "I almost had a shirt made that says, 'Yes, they still make it!'?"

The FDA and other health agencies started to remove saccharin from various hazard lists beginning in the late 1990s. The warning labels came off in 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed the Sweetest Act.

That would have pleased former President Theodore Roosevelt, an early saccharin consumer who was widely quoted as saying, "My doctor gives it to me every day. Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot."

Tough competition

Nevertheless, saccharinhas remained a distant third in the marketplace to aspartame (NutraSweet in the blue packets) and sucralose (Splenda in the yellow packets).

The global market for artificial sweeteners is projected to reach $1.5 billion by 2015, according to a report by Global Industry Analysts Inc. Saccharin is considered the cheapest of the big three to manufacture.

But compared to years past, business is at a crawl these days for the old Maumee Chemical plant in Cincinnati, which still uses the "Maumee process." The factory now only makes saccharin for a few pharmaceutical customers, said Zetta Bouligaraki, president of PMC Specialties Group, Inc..

"We used to be number one in the world, but this has changed because of China," said Ms. Bouligaraki, a longtime employee whose former bosses once worked at Maumee Chemical's East Toledo site.

PMC successfully petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission in 2003 for an anti-dumping order against Chinese-manufactured saccharin being sold in the United States at less than fair value.

However, the company believes that Chinese producers snuck around the 330 percent duty margins to continue selling to U.S. buyers, further decimating PMC's market share.

An East Coast firm called Kinetic Industries Inc. now claims the title of biggest domestic producer of saccharin. Kinetic used to import saccharin from Chinese-based Shanghai Fortune Chemical Co. but started making its own saccharin in 2009 with help from Shanghai Fortune, according to Mr. Perry, an attorney for the company.

Both firms use the "Maumee process," he said.

Contact JC Reindl: at: jreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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