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The Taste Makers

by Fred Schwarz

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, by Carolyn de la Peña (North Carolina, 320 pp., $32.50)

It’s often said that when a woman wants to lose weight, she goes on a diet, but when a man wants to lose weight, he exercises. The way this usually pans out is that the woman starts putting Sweet’N Low in her coffee and figures that’s good for at least a pound a week, so further measures aren’t necessary; while the man jogs three-quarters of a mile, comes home gasping, and decides that he needs to get in better shape before he starts working out. Besides serving as a handy metaphor for the mommy party’s and daddy party’s respective approaches to budget cutting, this explains how a book about the history of artificial sweeteners can become a feminist tract.

As Carolyn de la Peña, a professor of American studies at UC-Davis, explains, saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was discovered accidentally by a chemist at Johns Hopkins in 1879. Amid the Progressive spirit of the early 20th century, it soon became reviled as an adulterant: Since saccharin cost just one-thirteenth as much as the equivalent amount of sugar, food and beverage manufacturers sneaked it into their products to cut costs. This first anti-saccharin campaign was based on the idea that it was cheating consumers of “food value” — that is, calories. More acceptably, saccharin was also sold as a drug for diabetics and the severely obese. (As early as 1908, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt — a saccharin-using dieter himself — appointed a panel that found it safe for human consumption.) Through tight Depression budgets and World War II rationing, creative housewives searched out saccharin in the drugstore and found ways of using it to stretch their sugar supply; this helped remove the stigma. By the mid-1950s, saccharin was being marketed directly to healthy consumers, and over the ensuing decades, entrepreneurs developed new artificial sweeteners and marketed an ever-expanding array of “diet” foods and beverages.

That, greatly slimmed down, is the story, and for de la Peña, its main interest lies in the way women “created meanings” for the sweeteners by adapting them to their needs and those of their families. And this is where de la Peña encounters the basic paradox of feminism: how to portray women as strong, independent, and creative, yet simultaneously as helpless victims of the patriarchy. In the 1950s, says the author, saccharin-using housewives “created an intensely self-focused, empowering relationship with sweetness,” but a few decades later, they were passive dupes of corporate greed: “People do not merely decide that they want to buy lower-calorie items over higher-calorie items. Marketers actively commodify a palate of meanings. . . . By constantly pushing eaters to embrace their desire for more food, within a culture that had for thirty years urged consumers to consume more of everything, artificial sweeteners may have helped create the climate of fat fear.”

These conflicting sympathies come through most clearly in the author’s ambivalent coverage of the Great Saccharin Revolt. In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration tried to ban saccharin — and the public reacted with fury, sending more than a million letters to government officials in an ultimately successful campaign to get the ban overturned. De la Peña clearly sympathizes with the hordes of Americans, most of them women, who objected vociferously to the ban. Yet while she admires the protesters’ feistiness, there’s no denying that they were uncomfortably (how to put this?) Tea Party–ish.

Ultimately, she escapes this dilemma by explaining that saccharin wasn’t the real issue. Some protesters “wanted saccharin simply because the government said they should not,” while others had spent their lives being exploited and marginalized and were venting their frustration: In a world of perils ranging from cigarettes to toxic waste to nuclear power, “protesting the ban . . . may have enabled consumers to make sense of inchoate fears.” In other words, the Sweet-Tea Partiers were plucky victims, but victims nonetheless, seeking an outlet for their rage at being women in America.

Then came the 1980s and NutraSweet. “The team that manufactured and marketed NutraSweet,” writes de la Peña, “created such an intensely effective message around the product,” and managed to arrange “the regulatory apparatus in such a way,” that “the balance between producer and consumer was forever altered in its favor.” And who was to blame for this? Yup, you guessed it: “NutraSweet was not Reagan’s New Day in a can, but it was close.”

The Reagan Era’s emphasis on unbridled consumption and the individual pursuit of pleasure, de la Peña explains, eradicated the sinful connotations attached to overindulgence. Rejecting “an opportunity to check the very practices that would lead to national deficit, the credit crises and subprime mortgage bailout, and ceaseless military action in the Middle East, . . . Americans would instead embrace neoliberal government reforms, aggressive international relations, and admonitions to secure continued economic growth through consumer spending and tax breaks for businesses.” And artificial sweeteners were at the center of it. Seriously, they were. If you need any more proof that it was all a neoconservative plot, check out who was CEO of G. D. Searle when the company introduced NutraSweet in 1983: Donald Rumsfeld. Case closed.

For all that, the book isn’t bad. The author is diligent, mostly even-handed and non-polemical; and her more elaborate flights of interpretive fancy have something of the air of an eager student trying to please the teacher. She admits that “a binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ isn’t what the history of artificial sweetener reveals.” Her biggest flaw is that she overanalyzes minor episodes to support liberal pieties, when everyone knows they should be overanalyzed to support conservative pieties instead. So let’s see what happens when we recap the story from the opposite point of view.

In this version, private industry and resourceful consumers interacted to turn a laboratory curiosity into a multibillion-dollar market in artificially sweetened goods. Consumers sent signals with their purchasing decisions; industry responded with new products to increase profits. When the government overstepped its proper role, the result was the Saccharin Uprising of 1977, a milestone of freedom that (along with similar 1970s rebellions against the metric system and nationwide speed limits) finally killed off the New Deal. Thus did Tab pave the way for Ronald Reagan.

The enduring power of free enterprise can be seen in today’s profusion of new sugar substitutes, including sucralose, stevia, and neotame. These artificial sweeteners empower women (and men) by helping them balance the desire for pleasure with nutritional concerns. As de la Peña might say, consumers devise technological strategies to allocate their caloric intake in order to maximize hedonic value — and create meanings, of course.

Indeed, de la Peña herself might be called a social conservative in her insistence on suffering for one’s sins (“The promise of artificial sweeteners is that consumer pleasure can be stripped of its negative consequences”). She has a point: It’s not good for everybody to always take the easy route. There really is no free lunch, and certainly no calorie-free lunch. One can only wish the Left would be just as insistent on the importance of hard work and no shortcuts in areas where those things are truly necessary, such as homeownership and education.

Of course, the real conservative message is that all we’re talking about is a packet of Sweet’N Low, so we all should lighten up.

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