1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Sugar of Lead

By September 11, 2011

Follow me on:

One way you might suspect lead is leeching from your plumbing into your water is if the first water from the tap tastes sweeter than water after the tap has run a while. Lead tastes sweet. In fact, lead (II) acetate [Pb(C2H3O2)23H2O] is a compound that has another name: sugar of lead. Sugar of lead has been used as a sweetener throughout history. No honey or sugar? No problem! There is a calorie-free alternative. It's toxic, but you won't put on pounds from eating it. If you use enough of it, you might forget to eat altogether. The perfect diet aid.

The ancient Romans would boil down grape juice in lead pots and use the resulting syrup to sweeten wine and preserve fruit. We all know how it went down for the Romans, but lead acetate is still in use today. Have you noticed some lipsticks taste sweet on your lips even though, when you read the ingredient list, they contain no sugar or other sweeteners... well... except the lead acetate. Lead acetate is found in red lipsticks more than other colors. The chemical helps with colorfastness, which is why it's also using in dyeing, including progressive hair color, like Grecian Formula™ for men. You can have a head of youthfully dark hair, all the better to attract that lovely lady with the ruby red lips and the sweet, sweet kiss.

Crystal Photo Gallery | What Makes Lead Poisonous?
Photo: Crystals of lead (II) acetate or sugar of lead, prepared by mixing lead carbonate with aqueous acetic acid and allowing the solution to evaporate. (Dormroomchemist, wikipedia.com)


January 14, 2008 at 10:25 am
(1) Frederick Frick says:

I have been a happy receiver of Dr.. Helmenstines chem letter for some time. I am a wish I could have been chemist since childhood, 83 years ago; I have a small fun lab set up in my back room. I am a lover of the Dr. Thank you for keeping it simple for us wantabees.

September 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm
(2) D.K. Philbin says:

I am a chemist and I can recommend a book for you by Oliver Sacks..

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

A great read and lots of fascinating chemistry!
Your local library may have it.

Mr. pH

September 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm
(3) Joseph says:

Another great book is ‘The Elements of Murder’

September 23, 2011 at 6:10 am
(4) Meredith says:

CHeck out “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean as well…great read for chemists and science lovers in general!

January 20, 2008 at 12:06 pm
(5) Ziggle says:

Great article! It even motivated me to go and research this even further. I am just amazed at the role lead played in the Roman empire. From sweetner to plumbing. Even today, it is still in our plumbing and paint (at least the stuff we get from overseas.

April 10, 2008 at 12:50 pm
(6) Ray says:

I have recently developed gout, and found that lead sugar was a common cause. I have been drinking very cheep, inexpensive red wine imported from South America, and France. do you think that these wines made contain lead sugar?

June 2, 2008 at 11:35 pm
(7) Darren says:


The wife and I were having a debate on some chemical names (Mostly about an element called Einsteinium) and then the chemical debate continued.

Great article! Love your wit. It does make you wonder what would happen if all cosmetics were required to display their ingredients. (not to mention wines and other things we all consume)

January 19, 2010 at 7:33 am
(8) Moniba says:

its fintastic article. i really read the new aspect of lead acetate. fabulous. thanks for such a good thing.

March 31, 2011 at 10:46 am
(9) Lanthanum says:

Our water tastes sweet if the purification filter has not been changed in a long time. I wonder what it is…

September 12, 2011 at 6:31 am
(10) Norman Nicolson says:

Lead has been with us for centuries, I have worked with it in the paint industry and as far as I know after nearly 84 yrs, I am still mind active. Lead pipes in hard water districts gets a insoluble layer inside them. Never fit softeners on to lead pipes used for drinking water. I am reminded of an old cure for lead poisoning. The patient was immersed up to their neck in warm water for days on end and fed milk and cheese. After a long period of treatment, they were cured. It was realized after the space flights, that periods of weightlessness cause loss of calcium and with it the lead in our bones.

September 12, 2011 at 7:49 am
(11) Aida Campbell says:

On the conversation of Beethovan,actually he went deaf because as a young chilc, his dad would hit him continuously in the ears. Am I wrong on this??

September 12, 2011 at 8:51 am
(12) Chukwudi says:

I am very greatful mrs Helmenstine 4 makin chemistry so easy 4 me.I went 2 a poor secondary school(college)in chemistry dat made it difficult 2 understand bt u’re carryin me along ma.THANK U!

September 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm
(13) ALI RIZWAN says:

I am student of chemistry n doing job in sugar industry. im the receiver of Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine since last year.very good 4 me to enhance my knowledge

September 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm
(14) Kiptoo Towett says:

This great Dr Ann. Being a follower of your newsletters you have open up my mind. It shows that even small item can contain great things.

September 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm
(15) Donald Philbin says:

As a chemistry educator I highly recommend the book by Oliver Sacks..

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

A great read and some great chemistry!
Mr. pH

September 22, 2011 at 7:02 am
(16) akaigwe chomzy says:

tnk God 4 you,mrs Annie.i appreciate d newsletterin chemistry.thank u madam

July 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm
(17) Bea Wessel says:

When I was young, probably mid thirties or so, my little brother would go play and come in with poison ivy. Mom would put his nakedness into the bathtub and pour “sugar of lead” all over him. I never asked, but I assume this cured this case of poison ivy.

May 19, 2014 at 10:47 am
(18) Jamil Gregory says:

There is no lead acetate content in lipstick, especially not enough to detect a sweet flavor. Some lipsticks are contaminated with lead in the parts per billion concentration. This is not an intended additive.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.