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One cannot simply assume that everyone has an infinite desire for sweetness, any more than one can assume the same about a desire for comfort or wealth or power. — Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power

In May 2008, I ate breakfast at Café du Monde in New Orleans. It was early in the morning and the café had just opened, but already the tables were filling up with customers ordering the customary cup of house coffee and a heaping plate of beignets. I’d brought a book with me and planned to do a bit of background reading for one of the chapters I was working on. But the scene was too interesting. I was drawn to the sounds of tourists, half American and half foreign, speaking many languages, and the smells of what joined them: mounds of fresh, enormous, heavily sugared donuts.

Next to me was a family of three that I quickly identified by their flowered- print shirts and white tennis shoes as American tourists. Each of them ordered a plate of beignets (three to a serving). I noticed that as the woman ate her first beignet, she looked around the table and, finding something missing, signaled the waiter. She pointed to the white packets of sugar at the table and asked for something. He returned from the kitchen with a small plate of pink, blue, and yellow packets. She opened a yellow one, poured it into her coffee, and drank it as she ate the entire plate of food.

That scene took me back to another in Atlanta, in a small conference room, more than a decade ago, to a moment that was the start of this book (though I did not know that at the time). I was working in corporate branding for a soda client that shall remain nameless. Our assignment was to talk with “diet brand X loyalists,” or people who consumed the equivalent of between six and eight diet brand X sodas a day. We were to find out what values they attributed to the product so that we could more effectively market it to people’s “aspirations” and thereby sell more soda. I expected the loyalists to talk about how it tasted better or how they were trying to lose weight. They did that. But these women (and they were all women) also talked about the moments when they drank a can of Diet X. They told of working white- and blue- collar jobs that bored them, about their frustration at not being able to control their own tasks and schedules. They talked about taking care of kids and the exhaustion of domestic labor. And they universally characterized the minutes when they consumed a Diet X as distinct from these routines. It was something they did for themselves, a little “treat” that they could have without guilt, a brief period of time when the rest of the world would leave them alone.

I undertook this project to better understand what consumers are looking for when they choose “diet” products sweetened by artifi cial sweetener. In the process of exploring the history of sweetener invention, production, marketing, regulation, and consumption, I have found that artifi cial sweeteners have much to tell us about our consumer choices and our vexed relationship with food in the twentieth century. But they also have much to tell us about why individual scientists and businesspeople within food and pharmaceutical companies were motivated to create these new food products, and why women entrepreneurs and media professionals have been eager to market them as positive goods. Some were motivated by the challenge of technical innovation. Many were eager to distinguish themselves by transcending the limits of what their products — be they foods or pharmaceuticals, cookbooks or columns — could do. When we walk down the grocery store aisle and find hundreds of packaged products claiming that their contents are “low sugar” and “healthy” and “fortifi ed,” we are observing the results of neither a rational process designed to serve consumer needs and desires nor a conspiracy to ruin our health by making us dependent on vast quantities of nutritionally bereft foods. What we are looking at are the material results of human desire. The story of artifi cial sweetener reminds us that real people created the industrial food products many are quick to criticize in American life today. We need to take seriously the motivations of these people and begin to see our food products not as “artifi cial” or Introduction 3 “industrial” constructions that assault us. Rather, our food products embody us.

The transition of artificial sweetener from maligned chemical to praised innovation took place largely between the end of World War II and the early 1980s. The first part of this era saw a new mandate for citizens whereby patriotism should be expressed through consumption. While the eΠects of this era of plenty have been much studied in the realm of housing (federal loans and the rise of suburbia), material goods (the malling of America), and finance (a new credit culture), we have not thought much about the impact that this relentless push for more has had on the American appetite or our attempts to manage it. It is not a coincidence that the fi rst popular demand for saccharin and cyclamates, the fi rst sweeteners developed for a mass market, occurred in the 1950s as Americans expanded their material consumption at a rate unparalleled in history. Yet need alone might not have been sufficient for many consumers to overcome their initial aversion to sweeteners. It was the pitch people — pharmaceutical salesmen, fruit canners, and diet and beauty experts —who recast artifi cial sweeteners as health- enabling products. Still, without changes to the nutritional guidelines, sweeteners might not have won over buyers long wary of industrial substitutions and entrepreneurial health claims. What Michael Pollan has characterized as “The Age of Nutritionism,” wherein commodity lobbying groups successfully shifted our national dialogue from food quality and portion size to ingredients, calories, and substitutions, ultimately enabled artifi cial sweetener to realize its potential. As sugar became a high- profi le food villain and substitutes shook off their reputation as inferior, artifi cial sweeteners like aspartame (Nutra Sweet) and, later, sucralose (Splenda) were successfully branded “healthy” alternatives.

For individuals who have come of age during the eras of sweet substitutions, the results have been mixed. On one hand, many lives have been improved by artifi cial sweeteners. This is particularly true for those on the promoting end. Cyclamates, saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose were developed in laboratories, but they required nonscientific sensibilities to get from lab to pantry. Local newspaper writers went from writing food columns to lunching with pharmaceutical executives, from passing along well- worn recipes to inventing the art of low- calorie cooking. Product promoters distinguished themselves in industries like canning and weight loss by seeing the possibilities of presenting a chemical as a tool for beauty and health. By working with artifi cial sweeteners, many gained status, wealth, and power. For consumers, sweeteners have provided a means to enjoy pleasurable foods and drinks while reducing total caloric intake. They have been and continue to be cornerstones in many weight- loss plans and products. As substitutes for sugar and corn syrup in replacement shakes and diet- club meals, sweeteners have enhanced what would otherwise be bland food landscapes. In doing so, they have certainly helped people lose weight. And for diabetics, sweeteners have made the diΠerence between a life with very few sweets and constant sugar vigilance to one where a craving for sweetness can be safely indulged.

On the other hand, one does not have to look long at the positives of artifi cial sweeteners before the negatives appear. Product promoters, in fact, were frequently left vulnerable in the marketplace because of the uncertain chemical composition of sweeteners and the government’s attempts to ban them. The very women who used sweeteners to succeed professionally in food manufacturing and marketing often found themselves promoting a vision of thinness that they themselves found difficult to achieve. And consumers have walked a fi ne line between feeling empowered by the calorie control sweeteners have provided and feeling anxious about sweeteners’ safety and possible health risks. Further, it was through artifi cial sweeteners that pharmaceutical industries made their fi rst major inroads into our food supply. By stripping foods and beverages of troubling calories, they transformed consumer concern about appropriate consumption into profi ts. They sold more by marketing it as less. One is hard pressed to think of a more ingenious system for moving large quantities of product through American bodies in the postwar era.

Since the 1950s, the food industry has promoted eating as an act of pleasure, control, and satisfaction against the backdrop of a general expansion in the importance of material consumption and the proliferation of goods. It has inundated us with “fun foods” for kids and wrapped love in a box of chocolates. It has ingeniously developed ways to toughen the skin of tomatoes and modify the leaves of lettuce to make them cheaper to harvest and easier to transport across vast distances, giving us the “fresh” foods we desire, cheap and year-round. It has found ways to preserve wheat- based products with corn syrups and stabilizers, making snack foods cheap, convenient, and pleasurable. It has created an array of improved tastes — from “home style” cookies to tangy chips — enabling us to indulge our senses with astounding variety. And it has smartly marketed each of these innovations as giving us more of the food sensations we want for less money.

One could draw parallels to a number of industries. Products have diversifi ed across all sectors of the consumer landscape, from cars to clothing. Yet food faced one obstacle that these industries did not: the human body. Nutrition experts recommend that middle-aged people of average weight and height consume no more than 2,000 to 2,600 calories a day to avoid weight gain. As a nation, we can only expand the amount of food purchased — if we stay within those limits — by roughly 2 percent. That is not sufficient for “healthy” market growth. Artificial sweetener has provided the equivalent of buying cars on credit and homes on balloon mortgages — a way to have the pleasure of material consumption while staying within the actual material limits of what we can “afford.” It has made appetites that would otherwise be unsustainable possible. And it has enabled us to experience, on the most intimate level, a key promise of postwar American culture, namely, that the continued elevation of consumption levels would create a healthy nation.

As bodies living within this cultural moment, we have a few choices. We can hope to be lucky enough to live in a community where food values are rational. We can simply ignore all food messages from the outside world. We can eat beyond the number of calories recommended for moderately active adults and gain weight.5 We can commit to rigorous exercise routines to burn extra calories. We can make lists of what we do and do not eat. We can ban certain foods from our diets: animal products, fast foods, nonlocal foods, non–sustainably produced foods, or foods with preservatives. Or we can attempt to buy what we desire but strip those desired foods of their “bad” qualities. This last option is a form of socially acceptable bulimia, a way that the food itself can be “eaten” but not digested. And, thanks to artifi cial sweeteners, it has been the most popular way of dealing with our national eating disorder over the last fifty years.

At the start of the twenty- first century, we are left wondering whether there are consequences to pursuing what one Nutra Sweet executive once referred to as “the free lunch.” The rise of old- fashioned “original formula” sodas points to a new desire, particularly among young consumers, to return to a sugar- sweetened past. New variations on stevia, a sweet leaf, have recently been approved for inclusion in manufactured foods and beverages and are proving popular with people who want “diet” sweets that are more natural. Websites attest that conspiracy theories are still popular, decades after they emerged, accusing manufacturers of artifi cial sweetener of obscuring evidence that their products are harmful to human health. At least one recent study has suggested that artifi cial sweetener may in fact actually contribute to weight gain by increasing users’ postconsumption desire for carbohydrates.

As compelling as these questions of current defi nitions of “natural” sweetening and possible negative physical impacts of sweetener may be, this book is a cultural history. My focus is on the values and beliefs that produced these commodities and enabled their popularity. I leave chemical compositions and physiological eΠects to other researchers. Exploring the complex past of sweetener leaves me convinced that we are asking the wrong question when we wonder whether artifi cial sweeteners are physically “bad” for us or if other substitutions might be better. Decades of scientific inquiry, by competing industry researchers and consumer groups, have yet to fi nd that artifi cial sweeteners make us sick, even at high levels of daily consumption, unless we are in a very small minority of people who have severe reactions to particular chemical combinations. If we shift our view a bit and ask whether artificial sweeteners are culturally “bad” for us, however, the discussion becomes more interesting.

The promise of artifi cial sweeteners is that consumer pleasure can be stripped of its negative consequences. Since their arrival on the market in the 1950s as products for the well (as opposed to the diabetic or dangerously obese), saccharin, cyclamates, aspartame, and sucralose have been marketed as guilt- free sites of indulgence. Advertisements for diet sodas have long featured slim, attractive, mostly white women in states of digestive ecstasy holding cans of diet soda or spoonfuls of “sugar- free” puddings. Diet organizations like Jenny Craig, NutraSystem, and Weight Watchers have made artifi cial sweeteners “free” or “legal” for their followers and the basis for enormous profi ts for themselves. Yet there are, as most of us suspect, consequences to consumption — all forms of consumption. It is within this context that we should ponder the last century’s rapid, thorough, and “sweet” uncoupling of indulgence and restraint.

Chapter Outline

It is easy, when writing a study of a commodity, to focus on consumer manipulation. Marketing and advertising materials are plentiful, and they oΠer cohesive narratives wherein individuals choose one object over another because they are persuaded to do so by those who profi t from the purchase. I think it more interesting and accurate, however, to Introduction 7 look at how consumers make their own meanings, how producers and marketers amplify and alter these meanings, and how both groups are frequently steered by larger cultural forces. Thus, Empty Pleasures relies on archives, personal correspondence, biographies, and photographs, as well as successful and failed promotional campaigns. These are the places where complex and contradictory motivations can be found, where the march of progress slows to allow for accidents, imperfections, and sometimes just dumb luck. Artificial sweeteners have always been cocreations. As a result, chapters here alternate between producers’ and consumers’ points of view. The fi rst three explore the rise of artifi cial sweetener prior to its mass marketing and unifi ed messaging that would come with the mainstreaming of “diet” sweet products between 1955 and 1965. The first chapter explains why American consumers in the Progressive Era rejected saccharin. Here the story links inextricably to sugar, and specifi cally to the historical association between sweet taste, “healthy” calories, and labor. Unbeknownst to drinkers, carbonated beverage manufacturers had begun to substitute the new chemical sweetener for more- expensive sugar. When the press revealed this practice, consumers’ outrage rivaled that incited by contaminated sausage. Sugar- sweetened soda, many argued, was good because it delivered calories to the body. Saccharin, on the other hand, offered nothing of value. Quickly labeled an “adulterant” and “false scarlet,” the sweetener became a symbol of dishonest manufacturing practice and sparked a cry for regulatory reform. The debate reveals the initial value of sweet calories and suggests the dramatic differences between that era and our own.

In the second chapter I consider the period between this early twentieth- century consumer rejection and the early 1950s, when many consumers came to see saccharin and the newly discovered sweetener cyclamate as desirable commodities for many of the very same reasons saccharin was rejected a generation earlier. I place these substances in the context of women’s relationship to sugar in the mid- twentieth century, particularly during World War II, when sugar rationing emphasized their responsibility to nurture others by restraining themselves. Through this lens, we can understand the dramatic recasting of artifi cial sweetener from negative to positive in many American women’s lives. Because saccharin and cyclamate were chemicals produced in a lab, and not natural substances for “good health,” they enabled female consumers to create an experience of sweet more focused on indulgence than service. Some bought miniature, jeweled containers for displaying and using sweeteners. Others undertook their own kitchen experiments in low- calorie cooking. Imagining this early era of pills and powders, before the mass marketing of “diet” foods, uncovers the visual and tactile experiences that connected chemical sweets to power, creativity, and self- indulgence. At the same time, the fact that early users were predominantly white women suggests that not everyone had the same invitation to “redefi ne” sweet.

In chapter 3 I look at the role of men through a case study of the development and early marketing of canned “diet” fruits. Using archival documents spanning the twenty- year relationship between a canning chemist and pharmaceutical sales agents, I argue that the fi rst artifi cially sweetened products were created for two reasons, and both have to be understood if we want to know why diet products have so proliferated in the postwar United States. First, the rise in popularity of dieting suggested a new market for manufacturers who could take products known to be high in sugar calories (like canned fruit) and render them low calorie. Second, the men assigned to product innovation in fruit canning and in pharmaceuticals found they could enhance their own status by joining forces. The history of sweeteners and dieting, then, is as much about masculinity through scientifi c expertise as it is about a rising feminine imperative to be thin. This assertion is especially germane for those who seek to change the way Americans eat today. Often our emphasis is on the point of sale, where we try to influence consumers to make “good” choices. It is also important to look at the motivations of our food makers.

In chapter 4, attention shifts to the mass marketing of saccharin- and cyclamate- sweetened food and beverage products between 1955 and the late 1970s. Female manufacturers, marketers, and newspaper writers encouraged American consumers to accept chemical substitutes for sugar by casting substitute- sweetened products as a “modern” means of calorie control. They bridged laboratory and pantry by perfecting the message that artifi cially sweetened drinks and desserts could help users lose weight and gain pleasure.

Consumers would eventually fi ght for saccharin, and this is the story told in Chapter 5. Its focus is on a six- month period in 1977 when a threat by the Food and Drug Administration (fda) to ban saccharin and all saccharin- sweetened products (after a ban of cyclamates in 1969) motivated hundreds of thousands of individuals to put pen to paper to explain exactly what made saccharin so important in their lives. A sample of the roughly 1 million letters received by the fda and Congress illustrates that while consumers recognized the scientifi c evidence that saccharin could be dangerous, many felt they had more to gain by consuming it than they had to lose. Letter writers sought to educate the fda about what risk looked like from where they lived. In doing so, they presented a worldview in which dangerous external risks were oΠset by the chosen, pleasurable risk of saccharin. Their arguments suggest that, by the 1970s, saccharin had two primary meanings in American culture. It was a way to cut calories and it was a way to heighten the sensation of control in a society where consumption posed substantial risks.

Chapter 6 explores the highly orchestrated debut and promotion of Nutra Sweet beginning in 1982 and extending through the decade. Embedded in playful gumball packs that landed without warning in millions of American mailboxes, Nutra Sweet ultimately usurped sugar as the nation’s “healthy sweet” and birthed a billion- dollar business. Its promoters drew from and improved upon techniques used by saccharin and cyclamate innovators. Nutra Sweet’s materials taught prospective users to understand its chemistry as natural, encouraged them to see it as an empowering choice, and emphasized its ability to deliver pleasurable weight loss. At the same time, changes in U.S. nutritional regulations made it easier for consumers to see health as achieved through control of ingredients rather than physical exercise or overall food choice. Within a vacuum of unbiased nutritional advice, sugar was vilifi ed in popular culture, the number of artifi cially sweetened products increased exponentially, and Nutra Sweet became a “good” choice for sweetened drinks, desserts, and packaged foods. At the same time, its success, combined with a new set of superconsumers who drank gallons of aspartame- sweetened soda and coΠee a day, made Nutra Sweet a lightning rod for controversy among consumer health advocates. The term “Nutra Sweet syndrome” emerged to describe physical ailments ranging from headaches to brain cancer. A close look at this rhetoric, in light of Nutra Sweet’s claims, suggests the intensity of the hopes and fears we have placed on the chemical decalorization of pleasure in the American diet.

The Conclusion takes stock of where roughly 100 years of artificial-sweetener production, promotion, consumption, and protest have gotten us. It considers the recent lawsuit brought by Equal, a maker of aspartame, against Splenda, a maker of sucralose. There is great irony in the former’s claim that the latter has lied in declaring it is “made from sugar,” given Nutra Sweet’s own claims in the 1980s that it was “just like nature.”


The most common question I’ve been asked by friends, acquaintances, and students over the several years I have spent working on this book is whether artifi cial sweeteners are “unhealthy.” For a long time I avoided answering. Like a good historian, I tried to assert that the answer was complicated, that artifi cial sweeteners had multiple meanings, that at certain moments they were good for consumers or that they had been good for business, or that in small doses they were not bad for anyone, as long as you didn’t have one of a handful of rare genetic conditions. I still think these things are true. But they no longer add up to a suffcient answer to that basic question. I am now ready to say that artifi cial sweeteners have been unhealthy for us as a society. They do not appear to facilitate long- term weight loss for the majority of users. In fact, recent studies suggest they may actually leave us hungrier, and more likely to consume after ingesting them. They have enabled pharmaceutical companies to enter our food supply and promoted new systems of nutritional information that encourage decision making based on a confusing array of everchanging numbers and substitution strategies rather than on the origins, preparation, and taste of food. They have discouraged us from accurately noting and evaluating our own food desires. And they have ultimately made it very diffcult for us to ever be full of sweets.

I say this with some trepidation, and a caveat. Certainly for diabetics or the sucrose intolerant, artifi cial sweeteners have made sweetness possible, increasing the palatability of daily diets and providing an important source of gustatory pleasure. And even for those who can consume sugar, artifi cial sweetener has provided more food and drink pleasure more often because of its noncaloric properties. This is something I have heard directly and found in the archives. Back in Atlanta, many diet “loyalists” described diet drinks as tools that make their lives better by giving them sweetness without guilt — a “healthy choice” for pleasure that oΠered a break from a day spent worrying about others and feeling out of control. I hear in their words echoes of the women who experimented at home with cyclamates in the 1940s and 1950s, exercising control over families and innovating faster than the food industry. I also have deep appreciation for the ways in which developing and promoting artifi cial sweetener have enabled many men and women to acquire expertise, control industries, and transcend barriers of gender, class, and profession entrenched within the food, pharmaceutical, and marketing industries.

But from where we sit today — in the midst of a $45 billion annual expenditure on weight- loss products, a continuing state of confusion about sweeteners (something, ironically, corn syrup manufacturers are taking advantage of with their “What’s wrong with corn syrup?” campaign), and obesity rates that seem to stubbornly resist stabilization — these stories of artifi cial sweeteners as agents of consumer choice and smart substitutions for the calorie conscious seem more fairy tale than fact.9 If we want to understand how we could, as a society, simultaneously support a massive increase in low- calorie food and beverage sales and a relentlessly rising “average” American weight over the last sixty years, we need to look more closely at what low- calorie foods have actually been designed to do. History reveals that the answer is sell products not create thin people.

After World War II, pharmaceutical companies needed to fi nd markets for accidental creations, fruit canners had to combat sagging sales, owners of women’s magazines needed to increase ad revenue, and food and beverage manufacturers needed to expand product lines. Food promoters from multiple sectors found in artifi cially sweetened, calorie- reduced foods a tool similar to consumer credit for nonfood commodities. Both were ways to move products through consumers by removing barriers of capacity. The impact on our culinary landscape has been profound. Consider the total market for Diet Coke and regular Coke, or “sugarfree” and regular Dannon yogurt. Look closely at the total ad space occupied by light and sugar- free product variations in a mainstream “family” magazine. The ability of the low- calorie market to expand the total market for American foods is surely proof of the ingenuity of capitalism, whether you admire or decry the results.

We live in a culture that urges us to buy, to load our 2,500- square- foot houses with overstuffed furniture, and to park our gas- guzzling vehicles in the three- car garage. An ever- more- sophisticated manufacturing and marketing sector does its best to convince us that we can, in fact, consume our way to the American dream. But on the terrain of our bodies, these visible signs of acquisition are largely unacceptable. As a host of fatstudies scholars and tabloid headlines have announced, valued American bodies tend to be thin bodies. And therein lines the dilemma: we can overstuff our couches and our houses and our cars but we are not permitted to overstuff ourselves. Artifi cial sweeteners allow us to try to have it both ways. We can hyperconsume while “working” to be thin. We put more into our bodies in order to end up with less body overall. And so 12 Introduction one of the paradoxes central to contemporary capitalism is resolved: unfettered consumption can lead to fi scal — and physical — health. Or not.

As we reconsider so many of the false promises of “supply- side economics” promoted over the last decades, the moment is right to look suspiciously at those pink packets, “sugarless” yogurts, twenty- four- can cases of diet soda, and guiltless Frappuccinos that have come to seem such a normal part of our foodscape. Artifi cial sweetener has enabled us to have sweets, lots of sweets, whenever we want them. And it is, of course, far more enjoyable to live in a world in which “diet” means sweet beverage or tasty dessert rather than the absence of something we desire. Still, in a century where our key challenge as Americans is to fi nd a way to limit our desires to what our markets, our planet, and our bodies can hold, it may be time to reassess what artifi cial sweeteners and the lowcalorie industry they have enabled have actually done.

From EMPTY PLEASURES: THE STORY OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS FROM SACCHARIN TO SPLENDA by Carolyn de la Peña. Copyright © 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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

Copyright 2010 Carolyn Tomas