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Complete review of Empty Pleasures from The Chronicle of Higher Education.:

The Chronicle Review

September 5, 2010

Sweet Surrender

By Nina C. Ayoub

Ever since Carolyn de la Peña began work on the history of artificial sweeteners, she has been asked one question: Are these products unhealthy? She often avoided a response, she says, and—in typical historian's fashion—said it was complicated.

In a sense Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners From Saccharin to Splenda (University of North Carolina Press) is a book-length answer. And yes, it is complicated.

De la Peña believes that in small doses, artificial sweeteners are safe unless one has a special sensitivity. The substances have also enhanced the lives of diabetics. But they have been unhealthy for society as a whole in ways that go beyond chemistry.

"Our food products embody us," writes the author, a professor of American studies at the University of California at Davis. In the case of artificial sweeteners, what has happened is a "rapid, thorough, and 'sweet' uncoupling of indulgence and restraint," she writes. In more startling language she argues that the additives enable "a socially acceptable bulimia" or a way that "the food itself can be 'eaten' but not digested." Artificial sweeteners have "discouraged us from accurately noting and evaluating our food desires. And they have ultimately made it very difficult for us to ever be full of sweets."

As the first of the artificial sweeteners, saccharin has a long history. It made its American debut at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. But there was little consumer enthusiasm for this derivative of coaltar—saccharin was discovered when a chemist accidentally licked his fingers in the lab, a disquieting genesis it shares with other artificial sweeteners. In fact, quips the author, "if the history of artificial sweeteners is any indication, the finger lick is an unsung investigative technique."

Consumers may not have been interested, but manufacturers were. Saccharin was soon secretly added to products as a cost saver over sugar. When the substitution was revealed, the public erupted with rage over the adulterant and "false scarlet." It helps to remember, de la Peña notes, that sugar was widely regarded as a valuable source of energy and as a health food, particularly for children. "He'll eat half his weight in SUGAR this year," read an ad from Domino Sugar showing a boy grin as he bites into a treat. "Be sure it's pure!"

Saccharin's fortunes began to change during World War II sugar rationing, writes de la Peña. With much of the sugar supply destined for a military partially fueled on Coca-Cola and chocolate bars, home cooks had to improvise. For some women that meant visiting the diabetic section in pharmacies and experimenting with saccharin. De la Peña describes how many experienced an empowering creativity and found pleasure in a kind of "alchemic intelligence."

Beyond the home, she traces the introduction of artificially sweetened products to the mainstream, describing in detail the essential "co-branding" that occurred when a cyclamate-producing laboratory teamed with a California canner to produce a line of fruits.

Key to the acceptance of such products were such women as Tillie Lewis, another California cannery owner who with pearl-bedecked exuberance used a personal angle to draw customers for her 1950s product line, Tasti-Diet. "Because a Doctor put Tillie Lewis on a Diet—you now get low-calorie foods as delicious as high-calorie foods," her ads read. Lewis had a booster counterpart in Jean Nidetch, founder of Weight Watchers, who appeared in ads that urged dieters to cure their "chocolatemania" with saccharin-laced chocolate sodas labeled "legal" in WW's parlance of what was permitted. Weight Watchers offered more than sinless chocolate, de la Peña writes. It offered "to redeem the very sensation of craving and the personality trait of limited self control."

In its most intriguing chapter, the book details the "saccharin rebellion," which occurred in 1977 over a U.S. Food and Drug Administration plan to ban the substance as a suspected carcinogen. The author's language of uprising is deliberate. Consider the numbers. Within 14 days of the announcement in March, 30,000 Americans had sent letters in protest. By December of that year, the count had reached a million. This particular 70s movement has been neglected by historians, says the author. Yet the saccharin rebellion, she argues, reveals much about ordinary Americans' perceptions of pleasure in a risk-filled world and their class-inflected claims for autonomy.

Many who wrote the government went far beyond a simple "keep saccharin on the shelves." They agitated for saccharin, de la Peña notes, they stressed its importance to their lives, and they questioned the science of establishing a danger by feeding rats the equivalent of 800 diet sodas a day. "To convey their message of saccharin advocacy, they had to make visible their own bodies, their own knowledge, and their own situations," she writes.

Even consumers who admitted saccharin's potential danger could be adamant. "Saccharin may have been a poison, many argued, but it was a poison that one could pick," says de la Peña. Writing on the day of the FDA announcement, a Buffalo woman said that given her struggle with obesity, she was "shocked and personally frightened" by the decision to ban saccharin. She described her life living on the edge of Lake Erie and amid smokers as "one big cancer risk, which I am powerless to control." Surely, then, she said, "if I decide to take one further, very minor, risk of developing cancer it must be my decision."

—Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Buy the Book

The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda
by Carolyn de la Peña

The University of North Carolina Press

Paperback available in August!

Copyright 2010 Carolyn Thomas