Serious Reads: Empty Pleasures, by Carolyn de la Pena

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

20101001bookcover.jpgFood fads are rampant in our society, but some particularly potent trends have permanently altered the way we consume and relate to our food. One of the most influential, controversial, and prevalent of such substances is artificial sweetener. Currently on the market in many forms—Equal and Splenda two of the most prominent—these sweeteners are so much a part of our consumption habits that we simply can't imagine a time when low-calorie drinks and sweets didn't weigh down supermarket shelves.

I have been drinking and eating artificial sweeteners for some time, and often with nagging guilt. I know it's a chemical, but putting Equal in my coffee became a habit. Sure, it has a long ingredient list, but sometimes I just need the caffeine kick from a Diet Coke. So when I saw that professor Carolyn de la Pena was releasing a new book on the substance, entitled Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners From Saccharin to Splenda, I had to see if I was really harming my body by consuming these guilt-free sweets.

The story begins with the development of saccharin, the first artificial sweetener to enter the market. First produced in the late 1800s, saccharin was being marketed on a mass scale by 1906—interestingly, by the company that would soon become known as Monsanto Chemical. When it first hit the market, consumers were extremely suspicious. This was a time when the housewife was measured by the quality of her baked goods, and sugar was seen as an important staple to maintaining a healthy diet. A chemical substitute that decreased one's nutritional intake was at first not an appealing product.

Women were extremely important in the shift from sugar loyalty to saccharin acceptance. During the second World War, rationing of sugar pushed up its price, and women were encouraged to limit their own sugar intake so that the men (and potential soldiers) of the family could have better meals. Women began turning to saccharin as a means of livening up their diets, as well as potentially assisting in a reduction of their waistlines. The flapper influence from the 1920s still lingered in the public eye, and pressure to maintain a good figure was only growing during the 1940s and 50s.

At the same time as women were adapting saccharin into their daily routine, ad men and manufacturers worked hard to convey saccharin as a natural, safe dietary supplement. Diet canned fruit, diet soda, and diet dressings entered the market to much success. These powerful men often partnered with female spokespeople who would advertise the low-calorie product to an eager female audience. The advent of Weight Watchers and heightened awareness of the desirability of a thin figure only increased the market. A perfect storm of artificial sweetener consumption was being formed.

In the 1980s, a new product hit the shelves—NutraSweet. Made of aspartame, a new sweetener that some claimed to have a better taste than saccharin, this product soon became dominant. Savvy and revolutionary advertising campaigns underlined to consumers that this product was safe, and could in fact increase one's health. Hand-in-hand with a continually expanding market for "light", "diet", and "low-calorie" foods, NutraSweet (and its current form, Equal) came to embody all that early sweetener manufacturers had hoped for.

This book is absolutely fascinating. De la Pena ties together several storylines—the development of nutritional science, the struggle of the modern woman to sculpt an ideal body, the struggle between the producers and the regulatory agencies. I felt as though each time I opened the book I gained more insight into my own eating habits, as well as our consumption as a country.

The moral of this book is not that artificial sweeteners are bad for you. De la Pena points out that they have not been proven to be harmful to humans at any reasonable level of consumption. The point, rather, is that there are indirect negative consequences to their prevalence. We now lack control of our cravings, have a dependence on chemicals to suit particular tastes, and are manipulated by advertising companies and food manufacturers. This is not a book that scolds you for your gum habit and insists that drinking diet soda will cause you to put on pounds in the long term. Rather, it is a well-written guide to the history and development of a product that permanently changed, our meal preparation, our manufacturing system, and our self-perception.