Research conducted in recent years has greatly improved our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of sweet taste, as well as its inhibitors. A number of sweeteners and inhibitors discovered by Polish researchers have been patented.
One autumn afternoon in 1996, at one of the laboratories at the PAS Institute of Organic Chemistry, two PhD students were busy drinking coffee instead of working. They were chatting about chemistry; one was describing the NMR spectroscopy methods he used to define the structure of a complex natural compound, isolated from a particular fungus. The other, a certain Piotr, was waxing lyrical about the scientific advances likely to be achieved using his own method of determining the spatial structures of organic compounds. The first, bored with Piotr’s drawn out story and driven by a terrible habit, reached for a vial filled with a white substance standing on the bench. He licked his finger, dipped it into the white crystals, and tasted them. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the substance was extremely sweet – in fact far sweeter than sucrose. Piotr immediately repeated his colleague’s appallingly risky experiment, confirming his fascinating and surprising discovery. The “tested” organic compound, assigned the symbol LacBn by Piotr, was one of a series of several compounds he obtained as part of his PhD experiments. LacBn is a well-known compound, first synthesized by two Russian researchers in 1982. Predictably, the students were unable to restrain their natural curiosity and “tested” all the remaining compounds thoroughly. They discovered that some were completely flavorless, a few were bitter, but LacBn was the only one that tasted sweet. And so the story of a new, synthetic sweetener being discovered by chance repeated itself.
Accidental taste discoveries
In 1879, Ira Remsen at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore discovered saccharin also quite by chance. In 1937, Michael Sveda at the University of Illinois identified the sweet taste of sodium cyclamate, likewise accidentally. James Schlatter working at G.D. Searle discovered the now famous aspartame in 1965. Two years later, Karl Clauss and Harald Jensen from Hoechst AG stumbled across the discovery of acesulfame potassium. Sucralose, an extremely sweet derivative of saccharin, was discovered under particularly unusual circumstances: in 1976, at Queen Elizabeth College in London, the researcher Shashikant Phadnis – originally from India – was asked by his boss to test a few chemical substances. Unfortunately Phandis misunderstood the instruction and thought he was asked to taste it; the language mishap led to the discovery of a new synthetic sweetener. All these sweeteners, with the exception of cyclamate, are still used on a massive scale.
Institute of Physical Chemistry
Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw
S. I. Witkiewicz High School No. 64 in Warsaw