NR Digital

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.