- Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda
“Life without saccharin would be dreadful.” So wrote one Lynn Hamilton to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when that agency threatened to ban saccharin in 1977 (p. 141). Hamilton was one of over a million individuals who wrote passionate defenses of their right to a suspected carcinogen. In Empty Pleasures, Carolyn de la Peña shows how the status of saccharin and other artificial sweeteners shifted during the twentieth century, from maligned adulterants to ubiquitous objects of ardent attachment. Beyond the fascinating particulars of saccharin, cyclamates, and aspartame, de la Peña contributes to the history of technology by taking marketing and pleasure seriously.
Empty Pleasures starts by doing what the best histories often do, namely making our own cultural moment seem strange. In contrast to the value currently accorded to low-calorie foods, Americans in the 1910s actively rejected saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, because they valued caloric sugar. The nascent FDA questioned saccharin along with other “adulterants.” A 1908 panel found no evidence of harm but noted that saccharin had no value as food. Soda manufacturers and other companies were quick to announce their use of pure sugar rather than the questionable chemical. Advertisements advised mothers to keep their children “running on high” by buying only pure sugar (p. 31). Non-nutritive saccharin was relegated to the pharmacy as an aid for diabetics.
Because sugar was ostensibly vital for soldiers’ energy, it was rationed during World War II. Women on the homefront saved sugar for their children and reluctantly tried non-nutritive sweeteners. In the decade after the war, women continued experimenting with saccharin and cyclamates, pills and powders that were produced by pharmaceutical companies and not commodified as food products. In a refreshing contrast to views of women’s dieting as submissive responses to homogenizing power, de la Peña argues that their experiments with sweeteners were instantiations of creativity, control, and self-care. One 1956 cookbook urged the “creative cook to modernize and de-calorize the old anachronistic recipes,” an approach that fit with other contemporaneous examples of better living through chemistry like vitamin-fortification and Valium (pp. 57–58). While admitting that more research is needed, de la Peña surmises that sweeteners were unlikely to appeal to people of color at mid-century because they were marketed exclusively with images of white people and not advertised in African-American or Latino/a publications. However, minorities [End Page 849] often identify, albeit uneasily, with systems of meaning that do not represent them. Gay and lesbian people aspire to dyadic marriage, an arrangement in which they have not seen themselves represented, just as people of color may in fact have aspired to consumer products advertised to whites.
Empty Pleasures is weakest when de la Peña reads meaning into images—how significant is the whiteness of lab coats in cyclamate-manufacturer Abbott’s brochures? But the bulk of her work admirably investigates how marketing claims are made and how they matter to technologies’ successes and failures. The first artificially sweetened food besides soda was Diet Delights canned fruits, manufactured by California Canners and Growers (CCG). Using correspondence between Abbott and a CCG food technologist, de la Peña shows that Abbott did more than sell cyclamate. Abbott gained the canners’ trust, helped with machinery and formulations, allayed fears about cyclamate safety, and navigated regulatory hurdles. When the FDA banned cyclamates in 1969, Abbott managed to look like the good guy for sharing safety studies with regulators. But CCG had so closely associated itself with cyclamates through marketing that its reputation was destroyed.
De la Peña brilliantly shows how marketers of low-calorie foods dissociated dieting from restriction. She highlights women like Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch, who encouraged Americans to embrace artificially sweetened “legal” pleasures. By 1977, when the FDA threatened to ban saccharin, consumers fought back. Searle successfully linked its aspartame to choice, pleasure, and health, and...