Jan 272012

A fascinating I09 article on use of a dangerous sweetner in ancient Italy. SY

Romans used an artificial sweetener, Sugar of Lead, to sweeten and preserve their foods without taking on additional calories. Sugar of Lead, likely the first artificial sweetener, is now known as the chemical compound Lead (II) Acetate, and it’s a poisonous crystalline solid that resembles table salt. Let’s take a look at how the Romans stumbled upon this artificial sweetener, the evolution of its use, and its possible role in the fall of the Roman Empire. The Romans desired heavily flavored food, but lacked sweetening agents. Honey worked, but a large amount of honey is necessary to sweeten, and honey is often in short supply. Grapes, however, are plentiful two thousand years ago in Rome.

Roman winemakers found that boiling of unfermented grape juice created a sweeter liquid known as defrutum or sapa. Defrutum is created by boiling off half the volume of wine, while sapa is the result of a reduction to one-third the original volume of wine. Romans used the sweeter liquids to improve the flavor of existing foods, preserve fruit, and to preserve food for Roman soldiers (Ancient MREs!). The boiling process involved long hours and high temperatures, causing lead to seep out of the container, inadvertently artificially sweetening the sapa. The sweet taste is due to acetic acid in the wine converting to its hydrolyzed form, acetate. Acetate ions combined with lead cations leached from the containers, forming lead acetate. [article continues]

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