A sweet, low-cal tale
A new book by a distinguished Chemistry grad recounts Queen’s 1960s ties to the story of how one of the world’s most widely used artificial sweeteners was developed.
Bert Fraser-Reid, Artsci’59, MSc’61, is a world-renowned synthetic organic chemist whose CV includes myriad accomplishment and honours. Reportedly, he even was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1998.
Yet for all his professional expertise, Fraser-Reid admits he had no idea of the surprises that lay in store for him when, in April 2007, he agreed to appear as an expert witness in a multi-million dollar patent infringement case. Fraser-Reid was recruited by lawyers representing the three Chinese manufacturers and 18 importers named as respondents in the action, which was launched by the plaintiff Tate & Lyle, the British multinational agribusiness.
Six years on, that case has been settled – in favour of the respondents – and Fraser-Reid now understands how he, two of his former Queen’s classmates, and the Chemistry professor who taught them played peripheral roles in the story behind the creation of the synthetic no-calorie sweetener sucralose. That sugar-based, highly concentrated sweetener is the key ingredient in Splenda, the market leader in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
In his new book, From Sugar to Splenda: A Personal and Scientific Journey of a Carbohydrate Chemist and Expert Witness (Springer, 2012), Fraser-Reid explains how this all came to pass. His own links to that story began almost 60 years ago.
Jamaican-born, he came to Queen’s in the fall of 1955, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees here, meeting his future wife – Lillian Lawryniuk, NSc’61 – and winning scholarships that put him through school. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant student. As such, he caught the eye of Chown Research Prof. John K. Jones, who hired Fraser-Reid to work in his chemistry lab in the summer of 1958 and subsequently served as his grad studies supervisor.
“At the time, some of my colleagues were doing experiments to install chlorine atoms in sucrose,” Fraser-Reid recalls. “Jones was trying to develop a new pesticide.”
After leaving Queen’s, Fraser-Reid went on to earn his doctorate at the U of Alberta in 1964 and then did postdoctoral work at Imperial College in London before taking a teaching job at the U of Waterloo in 1966. Fourteen years later, in 1980, he relocated to the U of Maryland, then to Duke U in Durham, North Carolina. After his 1996 retirement from Duke, he established the Natural Products and Glycotechnology Research Institute (NPG), a non-profit venture that aimed to study the carbohydrate chemistry and biology of tropical parasitic diseases in developing nations. Now retired, Fraser-Reid still lives in North Carolina.
During his long career, Fraser-Reid won international acclaim for his groundbreaking work in carbohydrate synthesis. Initially, he was intent on finding ways to produce synthetic petroleum compounds. However, his research eventually took him in another direction entirely, one that involved the roles complex sugars play or could play in helping the body’s immune system to cope with various diseases, hence his involvement with NPG. But back to the sucralose story …
Like Fraser-Reid, his Queen’s classmates – Harry Jennings, MSc’61, PhD’64, and Solomon Gunner, Arstci’59, MSc’61 – used what they learned in Jones’ lab as jumping off points for their own research. One would have a peripheral role in the process by which sucralose was created, the other in how it came to market. That whole story is a complex one, but Fraser-Reid does a nice job of sketching the background simply and well in the opening chapters of his book.
He recounts how Jennings, who was British-born, took a research position at King’s College at the University of London in the same lab as the eminent carbohydrate chemist Leslie Hough – who’d done his grad studies under John Jones prior to Jones coming to Queen’s. It was in Hough’s lab that the breakthrough was made that led to the “eureka moment” when the chlorinated derivitive was found to be 700 times sweeter than sugar itself.
“It cannot be over-emphasized that the experiments that were being done in Prof. Jones’ lab at Queen’s [in the 1960s]… were totally unrelated to Splenda. At that time, there was no reason to think that chloriantion would enhance sugar’s sweetness,” Fraser-Reid hastens to point out.
Even so, there’s no discounting the Queen’s ties to “the Splenda story” – how the product was created and how it came to market. A footnote to that latter development is that in 1991, the aforementioned Solomon Gunner – the then-head of the Canadian Food and Drug Directorate – approved the synthetic sweetener for use in this country.
“It took a couple of years of research and study to learn the whole story of sucralose,” says Fraser-Reid. “Writing this book was very much a process of self-discovery for me.”
He notes that as slaves his own ancestors, prior to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, would have helped to produce the sugar that was shipped to England for processing by merchant firms such as Tate & Lyle. Writing in the Introduction to From Sugar to Splenda, Fraser-Reid muses, “For this descendant of slaves to appear as an expert witness for the Respondents in a patent infringement case in which Tate & Lyle is the Complainant is a very strange twist of fate.”
And, he might well have added, it’s a sweet irony indeed.
To order copies of From Sugar to Splenda, please email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.