When you get an idea for an invention, it is easy to consider the challenges, risks, and possible setbacks you may encounter and become discouraged. However, there are many stories of famous inventions that involved all of those setbacks and challenges—inventions that people can’t imagine living without today. While many products are the result of coming up with an idea first, and then developing it, many other projects are inspired by moments in everyday life. Some of the most famous inventions have even been invented entirely by accident. Aspartame is an example of just that occurrence.
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by James M. Schlatter, a chemist who was working on generating a chemical to assess an anti-ulcer drug candidate. He had synthesized the chemical as part of the process of artificially creating a hormone, gastrin. Unbeknownst to Schlatter, his fingers had become contaminated with the aspartame while he was working. When Schlatter licked his finger to lift up a piece of paper, he was alerted by the sweet taste of the chemical on his skin. Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar in its pure form. By 1974, the FDA approved its use in dry foods such as gum and cereal, as well as approving it as a sugar substitute. Shortly after its approval, the FDA held public hearings on some safety concerns. After some concerns were seemingly confirmed for a very small percentage, the product was taken off of the market in 1975. In 1981, upon re-examining the evidence, Aspartame was again introduced into the market, in the same limited capacity as before—for gums, cold cereals, and as a tabletop sweetener. Finally, in 1983, aspartame was approved for use in carbonated beverages, its largest application to date.
Later studies revealed that aspartame, which breaks into residual components when digested, can exacerbate the condition of phenylketonuria, a genetic condition which prevents the body from properly breaking down the amino acid phenylalanine. In the United States, the UK and most other countries, aspartame packets and containers must include an indication that the product contains phenylalanine, in order to warn those who would have to consider the item an additional dietary source of the amino acid. However, for those who do not have PKU, the sweetener is safe to consume at the recommended levels. The FDA has described aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved.”
Aspartame is just one of many inventions that were discovered completely by accident. While Schlatter had a background in chemistry, without the error of having gotten some of the chemical on his hand, and without having licked his finger, he would never have discovered the famous sweetener. When you consider that, the idea that an average person could, with work and patience, develop the next famous product, is not that far-fetched.