Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda
by Carolyn De La Peña


University of North Carolina Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-807-83409-1.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 10/07/2010

Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

Like many, I'm a long-time a consumer of artificial sweeteners. Except for baking, I've pretty much given up sugar. I habitually reach for the "pink stuff" to sweeten my coffee and tea, I sprinkle Splenda on my morning cereal, and I choose diet sodas that are sweetened with NutraSweet. Now, after reading Empty Pleasures, I understand more about the why and how of these food habits—and not just mine, but those of most American consumers. Carolyn De La Peņa has given me something to think about.

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda explores an important and completely overlooked chapter in America's food history: how and why and in less than three decades, consumers changed from craving sugar to rejecting it in favor of the seductive pleasures of artificial sweeteners. The book is a powerfully engaging and (for the most part) highly readable narrative that tells the story of Americans' growing acceptance of sweet-tasting food products and outlines the development of artificial sweeteners, their impacts on the food industry, and the cultural implications of our changing food preferences.

During the early twentieth century, sugar was promoted as a healthful food that contributed calories and energy in often nutritive-poor diets. As a result, consumers refused to accept such commercial products as soft drinks in which the cheaper new chemical, saccharin, was substituted (without their knowledge) for the more expensive sugar. What—it wasn't really sugar? Consumers felt cheated, and manufacturers were forced to return to their customers' preferred sweetener.

But in the postwar 40s and 50s, consumers' preferences began to change, spurred by women's growing interest in becoming slim and sexy. Saccharin (manufactured by Monsanto Chemical) and the new cyclamate were viewed as important sugar-substitutes, especially after new food products such as canned "diet" fruits were developed and the mass marketing of these products encouraged consumers to see them as part of a healthy "reducing" diet. When the FDA threatened to ban saccharin in 1977, consumers rose to its defense, and the age of artificial sweeteners took on a newly energetic life, even further encouraged by the "diet entrepreneurs," such as Tillie Lewis, Jean Nidetch, Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig.

Throughout the book, De La Peņa makes her thesis clear. It isn't that artificial sweeteners are "bad" for you, for there is no scientific evidence to prove their harm. But it is beginning to seem possible that we are not entirely satiated by these chemically de-calorized products and more likely to reach for another food. We have lost control of our appetites; we have become addicted to sweet-tasting chemicals; and we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by the food industry and marketers. The real benefits of these "empty pleasures" accrue to the huge conglomerates that own these chemicals: to Monsanto, for instance, which now produces saccharin, Splenda, and NutraSweet. Artificial sweeteners, De la Peņa says, have proved to be a superb, low-cost way "to move products through consumers by removing barriers to capacity." That is, if we don't have to count the calories in what we consume (and therefore risk additional pounds), we can eat as much as we want—although of course we have to buy it first. De la Peņa: "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."

Perhaps even more importantly, artificial sweeteners teach us that it is indeed possible to get something for nothing, a strongly negative lesson for a high-consuming society. They are another encouragement for us to keep thoughtlessly, mindlessly stuffing ourselves with things that have no real or lasting or significant value. In accepting the false promise of the artificial sweetener industry, we have also accepted the false idea of the Free Lunch: we can consume as much as we want of anything we choose and never have to pay the price. The real price.

This book will not help you decide whether to switch from "pink" to "blue" or go back to sugar. Instead, Empty Pleasures is designed to help you understand the history and development of these sweet chemical products, the processed foods that are based on them, and the industries and corporations that have profited by exploiting our cravings for sweets. But in the end and all things considered, De La Peņa concludes that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy for us as a society, for they have blurred the distinction between food and "neutraceuticals" and have made it nearly impossible for us to observe, evaluate, and control our appetites.

Strongly recommended for general readers who are interested in changes in the American diet and in their own food choices and for collections that focus on the history of industrial food.

Read an excerpt from this book on Kindle for the Web


Carolyn de la Peņa directs the UC Davis Humanities Institute and is also a Professor of American Studies and co-editor of the new Boom: A Journal of California. She is the author of two books (Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweetener from Saccharin to Splenda, 2010 and The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built The Modern American, 2003), and one co-edited volume (with Siva Vaidahyanathan), Re-Wiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (2007). Visit her website.

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