Happy Accidents #048 - Artificial Sweeteners

Sometimes it pays to not wash your hands!

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Two different artificial sweeteners, used as widely popular sugar alternatives today, both owe their very existence to uncanny similar serendipitous stories.

Check it out!

Let's dig in, shall we?


This is the part of every Happy Accident story where we see every successful outcome starts with the person putting themselves in a favorable position. They work hard, they try new things, they meet new people. They're not just sitting around 'hoping' to be successful some day.

Constantin Fahlberg was a Russian chemist born on September 22, 1850, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

He studied at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia) and later at the University of Strasbourg, where he earned his doctorate in chemistry in 1874.

Too say he had a curious mind is an understatement.

In 1878, while working as a chemist at Johns Hopkins University, Fahlberg was deeply engrossed in experiments involving coal tar derivatives (sounds gross, right?).

What happened next was a pure act of serendipity.


This is the part of every success story where there's a chance encounter, a serendipitous moment, an unintentional discovery (or Happy Accident) that paves the way for the next steps. In some cases, a Happy Accident can even be disguised as something bad in the moment.

After a long day's work, he had been so focused on his experiments he forgot to wash his hands before supper. While biting into his dinner roll he was surprised to discover it had an exceptional sweetness to it.

Fahlberg traced the sweetness back to some residue from his hands that had transferred to the roll. That residue turned out to be saccharin.

Saccharin would soon be patented and used widely as an artificial sweetener.

But that’s not the end of the story!

Jumping ahead almost 100 years to 1965, James Schlatter, a chemist at G.D. Searle & Company, was focused on developing an anti-ulcer drug.

In yet another serendipitous moment, some of the substance he was working on also ended up on his fingers as well (wow, sound familiar?).

When he licked his fingers, an unexpectedly sweet taste led to the discovery of yet another new sweet substance. This time it was aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener that would later become widely used.

How uncanny is that?


Just like Happy Accidents don't just fall into your lap (you need to set the stage first), they also don't turn into anything if you don't recognize them and take action. This is the part of every success story where we see people capitalizing on their Happy Accident.

While saccharin and aspartame's initial discoveries were both accidental, subsequent efforts to capitalize on them were focused and intentional.

Systematic research and development followed, driven by the goal of creating sugar substitutes.

Saccharin became a popular sugar substitute after Fahlberg's discovery, and aspartame was developed as a low-calorie alternative with various applications, including addressing the needs of people with diabetes and those aiming to reduce calorie intake.


The journey of saccharin and aspartame, two prominent artificial sweeteners, began with accidental discoveries.

Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist at Johns Hopkins University, stumbled upon saccharin in 1878 when an experiment's residue made his dinner roll exceptionally sweet.

In 1965, James Schlatter, a chemist at G.D. Searle & Company, unintentionally tasted the intense sweetness of aspartame while working on an anti-ulcer drug.

These serendipitous moments marked the inception of artificial sweeteners, leading to systematic research and intentional development that revolutionized sugar alternatives.

The journey from not one but two different chemists' forgotten hand wash to the creation of artificial sweeteners is a testament to the dynamic interplay between curiosity, experimentation, and innovation.


Check out this video that dives into the differences between artificial sweeteners and sugar.

Some fun facts:

  • Saccharin, the very first artificial sweetener, is about 300 to 400 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar).

  • Aspartame is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose.

  • Neotame is another artificial sweetener that is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar (wow…that is sweet!)

  • Check out this article about the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners

The lessons here:

  1. Embrace Serendipity in Exploration: The accidental discovery of saccharin and aspartame underscores the value of being open to unexpected outcomes in scientific exploration. Researchers stumbled upon these sweeteners while working on different projects, emphasizing the importance of curiosity and adaptability in scientific endeavors.

  2. Unforeseen Benefits in Mistakes: The accidental nature of these discoveries highlights the potential for positive outcomes arising from mistakes. In both cases, unintended exposure to compounds led to the identification of intensely sweet substances. This encourages a mindset that views mistakes not merely as setbacks but as potential sources of innovation.

  3. Cross-disciplinary Insights: Constantin Fahlberg and James Schlatter were both working on projects unrelated to sweeteners when they made their accidental discoveries. This underscores the value of interdisciplinary approaches in research. Breakthroughs can emerge when ideas and methods from one field intersect with another, leading to unexpected and groundbreaking results.

  4. Intentional Development from Accidental Discoveries: While these sweeteners were initially found by accident, subsequent research, development, and commercialization were intentional. The scientific community capitalized on these accidental discoveries, conducting systematic studies to understand, refine, and utilize these compounds as sugar substitutes. This teaches us the importance of purposeful action following unexpected breakthroughs.

YOUR Happy Accidents

Got a Happy Accident story of your own? I’d love to hear it! Send it on to me and it just might end up here in this section of the newsletter.

Hey, Dennis Geelen here. Author of the Happy Accidents newsletter.

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