The 'Empty Pleasures' Of Artificial Sweeteners

For this week's edition of All Tech Considered, NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Carolyn de la Pena, a professor at the University of California, Davis, about her new book, Empty Pleasures — about the evolution and impact of artificial sweeteners.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

So as we've heard, there are apps for weight loss, but way back in prehistoric analogue times, back in the 20th century, companies promised the secret to slimming down with the technology of their time. And still today, you'll find it every cafe and grocery store - the artificial sweetener.

And if that's not something you think of as technology, well, according to Carolyn de la Pena, the sweetener is one of the 20th century's most significant technological advancements.

Professor de la Pena teaches at the American studies department at the University of California Davis. She's the author of a new book called "Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharine to Splenda." Welcome to the program.

Professor CAROLYN DE LA PENA (University of California David; Author, "Empty Pleasures"): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And when do we mark the dawn of artificial sweeteners?

Prof. DE LA PENA: Well, artificial sweeteners began with saccharine, which was invented in the 1870s, but the dawn for consumers came in the early 20th century when people found out that quite unbeknownst to them, saccharine had been replacing sugar in a lot of carbonated beverages and canned foods. And it was actually a part of that progressive era where consumers sort of revolted against impurities in their food. So it didn't start out well.

SIEGEL: But the pitch behind the artificial sweetener was: use it and you'll be slimmer, you'll look better.

Prof. DE LA PENA: Right. And so that actually occurred after saccharine appeared on the market the first time. So after World War II, when people had to try to find other forms of sweetener when sugar was rationed, consumers began to experiment with things like honey. And saccharine was one of the things that people also used.

SIEGEL: Well, by the 1960s, people could see a commercial like this one on television. This was for Coca-Cola's sugar free, this is a saccharine-flavored Coke substitute, pre-Diet Coke era. It was called Tab.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Don't you want to have a good shape? He wants you with a good shape. Shape with Tab.

Unidentified Man: Tab can help you stay in his mind. It's sugar free and it tastes better than any diet cola.

SIEGEL: For those of you who never understood why there was a counterculture in 1968, there's a commercial from those days aimed at women. You'll stick in his mind if you have a good shape with Tab.

Prof. DE LA PENA: I love that ad. Yeah, and I think you have to put that in this context when suddenly foods had appeared so much cheaper and new advertising messages that, especially for women, really surrounded them with this message that, you know, food is happiness and you should indulge yourself. And at the same time there's the competing message that women have to be thin. So products like Tab really cleverly positioned themselves as able to do these two things.

SIEGEL: You write about artificial sweeteners as a feature of technology. I looked this up on the Web. Here's a lab experiment, as far as I'm concerned. In a saucepan over medium heat, reduce merlot to half volume, add tomato paste, mustard and seasonings, whisk until smooth, add cream and simmer the sauce until reduced by half and thickened. Is that technology or is that just cooking?

Prof. DE LA PENA: That's a great question. Yeah, absolutely. I mean cooking is technology. Cooking is chemistry. Our food products are technologies. I think what's so different about artificial sweetener is that it's a technology not only created in the lab, as are so many things that we eat these days, but that also really fundamentally transforms our experience of sweet. Artificial sweeteners that we use today are between 200 and 600 times per part sweeter than table sugar.

And so in that sense it's a technology that not just sort of does what we think it does, which is removes calories from what we're ingesting, but I think also has an impact on how we experience sweetness and then how we continue to desire it more.

SIEGEL: Yeah, we become addicted to sweetness. Maybe not sugar, but to that pleasant sensation.

Prof. DE LA PENA: Absolutely. There are studies that are coming out now that do show a correlation between artificial sweetener consumption and weight gain, quite the opposite of what we think we're getting when we opt for those diet sweets.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor de la Pena, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. DE LA PENA: Oh, you're welcome. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Carolyn de la Pena, who's the author of "Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharine to Splenda."

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