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Empty Pleasures views 20th-century America through the progress of its sweeteners

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The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered accidentally in 1879.

A Johns Hopkins chemist, trying to come up with a food preservative, licked his finger while experimenting with coal-tar derivatives. The chemical tasted sweet, and the finger lick started America on its quest for sugar-freedom.

That quest is the subject of Carolyn de la Peña's fascinating Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners From Saccharin to Splenda. Covering more than 125 years of invention, marketing, controversy and social adaptation, the book allows us to view 20th-century America through the progress of its sweeteners.

De la Peña, a professor of American studies at the University of California-Davis, once worked in "corporate branding for a soda client that shall remain nameless" (given that she was in Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola, you are free to hazard a guess). She writes that after entering the project from a neutral position, "I am now ready to say that artificial sweeteners have been unhealthy for us as a society." Her lively, engaging book shows why.

Soda bottlers started slipping saccharin into their products in the early 20th century after the chemical's manufacture was industrialized by a man named John Queeney—whose company would later change its name to Monsanto. Saccharin was cheaper than sugar, for one thing, and, because it was a lab-produced sweetener rather than a natural one imported from politically unstable countries, its price was more predictable.

But when consumers in the Progressive Era of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the Teddy Roosevelt-created Food and Drug Administration found out that their drinks were being "adulterated," they were scandalized. Sugar was still considered a health food in those days, offering abundant, inexpensive energy to America's large population of manual laborers. Non-nutritive saccharin was cheating them out of that energy, "as false a scarlet as the glow of health transferred from the rouge pot to the cheek of a bawd," as a commentator put it at the time. Saccharin's use was mostly restricted to diabetics and the medically obese.

So the sugar-free war seemed lost, but then it was fought again by attaching it to another war. During World War II, with sugar rationed and sent off to soldiers fighting overseas, moms at home started embracing saccharin and its competitor, cyclamate, out of patriotic duty. In the postwar boom that followed, saccharin found niches in our food and culture. Among the oddest of these were the sparrow-shaped containers popularized by a costume-jewelry company. In the 1950s, saccharin was sold almost exclusively in pellet form, meant to be dropped into coffee or tea, and the little passerine jewel boxes, sold with tweezers to grab the pellets, prettified and socialized the dispensing of what looked like—and basically was—medicine.

That saccharin was packaged and used much like a drug in the 1950s comes as little surprise. This was, De la Peña notes, the "era when tranquilizers like Miltown, Valium and Librium were becoming household names ... It could not have gone unnoticed that saccharin and cyclamates bore a close resemblance to these new 'happy pills.'" In the better-living-through-science Eisenhower decade, almost everything natural could be "improved" by technology.

That included not only sugar but what it went into: the human body, and particularly the female body. De la Peña notes here, and throughout Empty Pleasures, the major role that women played in popularizing artificial sweeteners. Not only the postwar kitchen but also the emerging culture of dieting were mainly female domains, and De la Peña inscribes women's experimental and highly social creativity into the development of artificial sweeteners. It was not exactly a surprise, then, that when the government tried in 1977 to ban saccharin (in enormous quantities it had been shown to cause bladder cancer in lab rats), as it had done successfully with cyclamates in 1969, an overwhelming flood of remonstration, mostly by women, saved the stuff. Forget bra burning—women's big protest of the Me Decade was for Tab.

After women made these chemicals acceptable, an army of gray-flannel-suited salesmen stood ready to market them. De la Peña's "Diet Men" chapter shows the tightly woven collaboration of pill pushers, food manufacturers and many others in installing artificial sweeteners in our foods. It also suggests that saccharin and cyclamates were, to them, little more than widgets: If a product existed, even if it was dangerous, it had to be sold to America's increasingly acquisitive consumer base. And sold it was. Once the diet-food market had been thoroughly established, the Diet Men expanded artificial sweeteners' conquest until, eventually, many sugared foods had to share their grocery shelf space with low-calorie alternatives.

That neatly solved a problem: People can only consume so much food, and so the supply risks outstripping the demand. De la Peña astutely locates the solution in the larger phenomenon of American consumerism: "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 ... 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."

You'll want to do the latter after reading the book's final chapter, "NutraSweet Nation." The pharmaceutical company Searle, which discovered (via yet another chemist's finger lick) aspartame, NutraSweet's chemical name, didn't mess around with surreptitious product placement or courting women or tiptoeing around the FDA: They hired a CEO by the name of Donald Rumsfeld, in preparation for government stroking, litigation and, most important, raking in money. "NutraSweet was not Reagan's New Day in a can," de la Peña writes, "but it was close.

Searle blitzed the nation, including mailing five million NutraSweetened gumballs to homes across the U.S., an almost literal bombardment. And although NutraSweet would soon control over 90 percent of the market share for years, Equal and Sweet'N Low still coexist. We've made room for Splenda, too, and we're already listening to the blandishments of Stevia—which actually is natural, and a cause for cautious optimism in De la Peña's coda to Empty Pleasures.

But that's the only one. De la Peña concludes, for a number of rigorously arrived-at reasons, that artificial sweeteners are bad for us as a nation. She might have added another one that says volumes about the oppressive, homogenizing effects of big business on not just our food supply but on our economy and our national individualism. In 1985, right after the NutraSweet gumball barrage, Searle and its NutraSweet were acquired by another, even larger company: Monsanto, which had launched saccharin in 1902. Equal indeed. It's enough to make you feel almost healthy when you reach for the sugar-rich Halloween candy this weekend.

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