Rome’s First Deadly Artificial Sweetener

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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“Every sweet hath its sour, every evil its good.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Compensation

In A Nutshell

Health gurus and nutritional experts have been waging a war on artificial sweeteners and the potential long-term health effects of using such products for decades. The idea of artificial sweeteners is nothing new, and neither is the idea that they can be pretty deadly. The Romans were the first to use an artificial sweetener; it was called “sugar of lead,” and was exactly that. This lead-based sweetener was often added to wine, and the rampant lead poisoning it caused has, in some cases, been linked to the beginning of the downfall of Rome.

The Whole Bushel

Today, we know how deadly lead can be if its ingested in any quantity—that’s why lead paints and lead toys are banned. But in ancient Rome, cooks and winemakers only had the flavor of a substance to go on when it came to deciding what was safe for human consumption—and as it turns out, lead acetate is pretty darn tasty.

(Many poisons have a bitter or sour taste that works as a first clue to tell our bodies that we’re eating something that’s not good for us. The opposite is true for sugar of lead, however, and its pleasant taste is one reason why it remained popular for so long.)

Lead acetate was otherwise known as sugar of lead, and it was the first in a long line of artificial sweeteners. Today we know that even though it might look like harmless table salt, it’s actually a highly toxic substance that has all kinds of nasty side effects like infertility and dementia. It can even lead up to organ failure.

It was first used in Rome, when winemakers found it was (theoretically) the perfect thing to add a little sweetness to the Roman’s drink of choice—wine. Not only did it add the perfect flavor, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult to obtain as other sweeteners such as honey. To further add to the sweet taste of the final wine, winemakers often used lead pots to boil the grapes; after adding the sugar of lead, the lead content of the wine was somewhere around 1,000 times higher than what we know is the acceptable limit today.

The use of sugar of lead wasn’t limited to just wine, either. Roughly one-fifth of the recipes in a single fourth-century Roman cookbook called for sugar of lead, and strangely, it remains an actively used ingredient in a number of different compounds—including lipstick—even today.

Sugar of lead has also been implicated in the death of Pope Clement II. In 1047, the pope died under mysterious circumstances which were much, much later revealed to be lead poisoning—a logical conclusion, especially considering the pope liked his wine prepared in the ancient Roman tradition.

Historians have, for centuries, studied the downfall of Rome. While there’s certainly no easy answer as to just what happened to one of the most powerful civilizations in history, it’s been put forth that lead poisoning is one major part of it. In addition to the sugar of lead that was so popular in their diet, Romans also drank their water after it had been filtered through lead pipes and consumed their food and drink from lead vessels. Even our modern word “plumbing” is derived from the Latin word for “lead”—“plumbum.” One of the biggest pieces of evidence that historians point to when they’re discussing the impact of lead poisoning on Roman culture is the widespread, rampant freedom of sexual endeavors and the distinct lack of offspring that came from the various unions. Even Roman emperors renowned for their sexual appetites have only a handful of offspring credited to them, a sign, historians say, that they were suffering from the sterility and infertility that often went along with lead poisoning.

The emperors, clearly a part of the upper-class Roman elite that would have enjoyed a full array of fresh water piped through lead fittings and a steady diet of lead-based wines, also suffered from chronic dementia and not a little bit of insanity, as well as another common side effect of lead poisoning: gout.

Show Me The Proof

io9.com: The first artificial sweetener poisoned lots of Romans
Smithsonian: Sugar of Lead: A Deadly Sweetener
EPA: Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective
NY Times: Roman Empire’s Fall Is Linked With Gout And Lead Poisoning