Lead, Sugar of

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

lead, sugar of, known to chemists as lead(II) acetate or Pb (CH3COO)2, gets its name not from its undeniable resemblance to rock candy but from its taste. It is sweet, roughly as sweet per teaspoon as sugar—and only slightly more lethal than strychnine.

In the nineteenth century, when mercury was used as a remedy for maladies as serious as syphilis and as commonplace as constipation, sugar of lead (saccharum saturni) was also part of the European pharmacopeia. Ironically, given that one symptom of acute lead poisoning is an upset stomach, the chemical was occasionally prescribed in low doses for intestinal maladies. Lead poisoning came to be called “colic of Poitou,” due to the once widespread use of lead in that winemaking region.