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Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda

Carolyn de la Peña

(University of North Carolina Press; US: Sep 2010)

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda is about a lot more than aspartame, diet sodas, and cancer in lab rats.

Sure, author Carolyn de la Peña talks about cyclamates, saccharin, sucrose, aspartame, Splenda, Equal, NutraSweet, and Stevia. Undeniably, the book examines just about every aspect of these substances—the creation, the chemistry, the marketing, the legal wars. Even the stylish boxes designed to hold saccharin pills—some came already wrapped, making them the perfect hostess gift—are discussed.

As one might expect, words like diet, slimming, reducing, obesity, and cancer are often referenced, but beyond that Empty Pleasures is the story of politics, power, and people. It’s the story of cultural change brought about, in part, by those little pink and blue packets that sit so innocently on restaurant tables.  In a time when questions about health, nutrition, and weight abound, when Americans are blaming everything from video games to corn syrup to Happy Meals for their current less than healthy state, de la Peña’s book provides a welcome and an enlightening examination of consumption and its consequences.

The book opens with an explanation of “Why Americans in the Progressive Era rejected saccharin” and moves to WWII when people saw sugar as a healthy food and expected women to sacrifice their sugar. As de la Peña notes “Women were told that they could contribute to the vitality of the soldiering force (a force constituted of their husbands and sons) by making sure that sugar bypassed their lips in order to reach those of fighting men.”

Later chapters detail the first major diet capitalists: Tillie Lewis, founder of Tasti-Diet foods, and Jean Nidetch, founder of Weight Watchers. Men may have created artificial sweeteners, but women, de la Peña notes, gave them value:

Men like Fahlberg, Queeney, Mitchell, and Beck invented saccharin and cyclamates, helped stabilize their formulas, and put them in cans on supermarket shelves across the country. What they did not do was create a full set of accompanying meanings for the products, meanings that could help move them off the shelves, into the cars, and eventually into the bodies of consumers.

Or put more succinctly, “Men made the chemicals, but women made them relevant. Artificial sweetness required equal parts technical and cultural response.”

Response was certainly what the FDA received in 1977 when it announced that “Beginning January 1, 1978, saccharin would be banned in the United States”.  Within the span of several months, Congress, the FDA, and President Jimmy Carter received over one million letters.  At first glance, perhaps this makes American people, particularly women, seem shallow—a massive protest over diet soda? However, as de la Peña notes, there was a lot more to it:

For many who had disagreed with their government over wars, recessions, job losses, or environmental destruction, not until Tab and Diet Pepsi were threatened with legal action did they pick up a pen… The letters they wrote are powerful testaments to the ways in which artificial sweeteners, as a material and as a set of cultural messages, were deeply intertwined with the ways Americans thought about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

One of the strongest elements of the book is the primary research. In the introduction, de la Peña relates “Empty Pleasure relies on archives, personal correspondence, biographies, and photographs”. Nowhere is this research more apparent than when de la Peña details the consumer response to the proposed banning of saccharin. Referencing letter after letter, she explains, often using the letter writers’ words, the multitudes of objections people raised to the potential banning of saccharin: no person could drink the equivalent of 800 diet sodas a day, people had been consuming it for years with no ill effects, first- and second-hand smoke was more dangerous and cigarettes were still legal. One consumer stated that “her own city water ‘produces compounds suspected of causing cancer’” and claimed the saccharine ban was “ridiculous”. Others claimed “Life is not worth living without diet foods.”

Of course, saccharin wasn’t banned in the ‘70s, but it was replaced in the ‘80s: with aspartame. Many might remember this changing of the guard because of the clever advertising campaigns promoting aspartame and products containing it. de la Peña includes many images in her book and shows an excellent reproduction of one of the original NutraSweet ads along with the Diet Pepsi ad that reads “Check the Facts: This product [Diet Pepsi] contains no saccharin. This product [Diet Coke] contains saccharin.” 

However, the Diet Pepsi campaign may not have been the most important campaign relating to artificial sweeteners.  According to de la Peña, even the 1980 United States Presidential election was connected to artificial sweeteners. In 1979, President Carter

diagnos[ed] Americans as suffering from a syndrome of empty consumption and indulgence. In a speech that is largely credited with turning the tide of public opinion against him (especially in the face of the protracted Iran hostage ordeal), he preached a state of the union wherein ‘too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption’ rather than industriousness and restraint.

When President Regan was elected “In 1980 on a New Day platform, Americans would instead embrace neoliberal government reforms, aggressive international relations, admonitions to secure continued economic growth…and tax breaks for businesses”, leading de la Peña to conclude “NutraSweet was not Reagan’s New Day in a can, but it was close.”

Of course, for all its power, by the 21st century, NutraSweet was no longer ruling the artificial sweetening kingdom; Splenda had become the top selling sweetener in the United States. And with $226 million dollars in sales in 2007, it seems to have a pretty firm grip on the market. However, at the close of the book, de la Peña touches on the most recent non-sugar but not really artificial sweetener—Stevia. A natural product, de la Peña wonders if it will “make good on many of the promises made but not delivered by the producers of artificial sweeteners” but also notes that it is also too soon to tell.

From aspartame to Stevia,  one question dominates the mind of today’s artificial sweetener consumer. And at the very end of the book, de la Peña turns to the question everyone asks about their artificial sweetener of choice: “Is it bad for me?”  It seems like such a simple question—just requiring a yes or a no answer. But after reading Empty Pleasures, it’s clear that this is anything but a simple question and that the answer depends, at least in part, on who is asking.


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