A Bitter 'Sweet' Family History

Rich Cohen, author of 'Sweet And Low: A Family History' i i

hide captionRich Cohen, author of Sweet And Low: A Family History

Sara Barrett
Rich Cohen, author of 'Sweet And Low: A Family History'

Rich Cohen, author of Sweet And Low: A Family History

Sara Barrett

Scroll down to read an excerpt from the book.

Short-order cook Ben Eisenstadt and his son Marvin invented Sweet 'N Low at a Brooklyn diner in the 1950s. The little pink packets of saccharin and dextrose were a national hit. But the booming business led to a 40-year battle over the family fortune.

In the book Sweet and Low, Eisenstadt's grandson, Rich Cohen, tells the family story from a special vantage point. Cohen's mother and all of her children were disinherited by Eisenstadt's wife, Betty.

Debbie Elliott talks with Cohen about why artificial sweetener was such a success, his family's reaction to the memoir and the lingering bitterness.

An FDA Guide to Sweeteners on the Market

The Food and Drug Administration has approved four sugar substitutes — saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose — for use in a variety of foods.

Saccharin was discovered in 1879, and was used during both world wars to sweeten foods, helping to compensate for sugar shortages and rationing. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar. In 1977, a Canadian study that looked specifically at the role of impurities — and of other suspected tumor causes, such as parasites in test animals — showed convincingly that saccharin itself was causing bladder cancer in rats. That same year, FDA proposed to ban saccharin for all uses except as an over-the-counter drug in the form of a tabletop sweetener. Congress responded by passing the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act, which placed a moratorium on any ban of the sweetener while additional safety studies were conducted. The ban was officially lifted in 1991 and saccharin continues to have a fairly large appeal as a tabletop sweetener, particularly in restaurants, where it is available in single-serving packets under trade names such as Sweet 'n Low. Because it has a good shelf life, saccharin is used widely in fountain sodas, and its stability at high temperatures makes it an option for sweetening baked goods, unlike aspartame, which degrades when heated. Saccharin also is favored economically because it can be made inexpensively.

Aspartame, approved in 1981, is 180 times sweeter than sugar. It is used in products such as beverages, breakfast cereals, desserts, and chewing gum, and also as a tabletop sweetener. In 1996, a study raised the issue that aspartame consumption may be related to an increase in brain tumors following FDA's approval of the sweetener in 1981. But analysis of the National Cancer Institute's database on cancer incidence showed that cases of brain cancers began increasing in 1973—well before aspartame was approved—and continued to increase through 1985. In recent years, brain tumor frequency has actually decreased slightly. NCI currently is studying aspartame and other dietary factors as part of a larger study of adult brain cancer.

Acesulfame Potassium was first approved in 1988 as a tabletop sweetener. Also called Sunett, it is now approved for products such as baked goods, frozen desserts, candies, and, most recently, beverages. More than 90 studies verify the sweetener's safety. About 200 times sweeter than sugar and calorie free, it is combined with other sweeteners. Worldwide, the sweetener is used in more than 4,000 products, according to its manufacturer, Nutrinova. Acesulfame potassium has excellent shelf life and does not break down when cooked or baked.

Sucralose, also known by its trade name, Splenda, is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose tastes like sugar because it is made from table sugar. But it cannot be digested, so it adds no calories to food. Because sucralose is so much sweeter than sugar, it is bulked up with maltodextrin, a starchy powder, so it will measure more like sugar. It has good shelf life and doesn't degrade when exposed to heat. Numerous studies have shown that sucralose does not affect blood glucose levels, making it an option for diabetics.

Sugar Alcohols are slightly lower in calories than sugar and do not promote tooth decay or cause a sudden increase in blood glucose. Though not technically considered artificial sweeteners, they include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, and maltitol and are used mainly to sweeten sugar-free candies, cookies, and chewing gums. FDA classifies some of these sweeteners as "generally recognized as safe" and others as approved food additives.

Compiled from "Sugar Substitutes: Americans Opt for Sweetness and Lite," by John Henkel in FDA Consumer magazine.

Excerpt: 'Sweet and Low: A Family Story'

Jacket of 'Sweet And Low' by Rich Cohen

Everyone in my family tells this story, but everyone starts it in a different way. My mother starts it in the diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt, a short-order cook, invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low, and with them built the fortune that would be the cause of all the trouble. My sister starts it with his wife, Betty, the power behind the throne, the woman who, in this version, found in Ben a vehicle for her dreams. Whenever anyone asks what Betty was like, I say, "Betty had her name legally changed to Betty from Bessie."

My father starts the story in downtown Brooklyn, in the courtroom where my Uncle Marvin, the first son of the patriarch, a handsome, curly-haired man who insists on being called Uncle Marvelous, is facing off against federal prosecutors. After assuming control of the Cumberland Packing Company, which makes Sweet’N Low, Sugar in the Raw, Nu-Salt, and Butter Buds, Marvin, among other things that caused a scandal, put a criminal on the payroll, a reputed associate of the Bonanno crime family. That criminal made illegal campaign contributions to Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who sponsored legislation that kept saccharin on the market. Saccharin, a key ingredient of Sweet’N Low, had been found to cause cancer. In the end, Marvin cut a deal with prosecutors, testifying for the government and keeping himself out of prison.

In other words, Uncle Marvelous turned rat.

I start this story at the Metropolitan Club, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where my cousin Jeffrey, the oldest son of the oldest son, the scion of the third generation, is getting married for the second time. Jeffrey, a burned-out surfer, a bloodshot member of the high school class of ’78 whose yearbook picture still tells the story, is earmarked to inherit the empire. If Jeffrey read more widely, he would know that he is fated to screw the pooch, lose his grip, open his hands and let the money blast back into the whirlwind.

Or I start with Uncle Ira, the youngest son of Ben and Betty, a vice president of the company, who controls 49 percent of the stock. Ira, who has always struck me as an extreme eccentric, is years younger than his siblings, a pampered, interesting kid who grew into a genuine nut, a man who carries a purse, wears sandals, follows whims, sports an unruly red beard, and lives in an East Side town house with his wife and many cats. Ira has been to his office at the factory just twice in the last ten years. (Though he says he works many hours a day from home via phone and fax.) He is the trick that fate played on empire, the inscrutable brother who has to be watched.

At Jeff's wedding, he approached me in the bathroom. Standing next to me at the urinal, he said, "What is the last thing you want your crazy uncle to say to you in the bathroom?"

"What?"

"Nice d- - -."

My brother starts the story in Flatbush, in the icebox chill room of my aunt Gladys, a woman who, for mysterious reasons, had not been out of the house — her childhood home, where she still lived with Ben and Betty — in almost thirty years. I once heard a politician describe a rival's tax scheme as "the crazy aunt hiding in the attic," and I said to myself, "She actually lives on the ground floor." Whenever I asked what was wrong with Aunt Gladys, why she never left her room, words were muttered about arthritis, psoriasis, lack of confidence. Even though she is the least physically active of the Eisenstadt siblings, Gladys, with her telephone, drives the action of this story. In a way I am still trying to fathom, Gladys is its protagonist. When I was briefing my brother-in-law on his new family and told him that Gladys had not left the house since the Nixon administration, he said, "You mean mostly she stays in the house but now and then she leaves the house to go to the store?" I said, "I mean mostly she stays in her room but now and then she leaves her room to go to the bathroom."

As I mentioned, my aunt’s room, for reasons I still do not understand, is kept as cold as a meat locker. To this day, if we are in a movie theater or a mall where the AC is really cranking, my brother will say, "It’s like Aunt Gladys’s room, it’s so cold in here." By which we know him to mean more than just the temperature: Gladys's room is where my brother, Steven, learned the nature of things. Once a week, before I was born, my brother and sister were taken to Flatbush to visit their grandparents, aunt, and cousins.

There was an ancient form of primogeniture at play in the family; as the son of the oldest son, Cousin Jeffrey was golden. One week, Grandma Betty decided that a grandchild would, for no particular reason, have a party thrown in his or her honor, complete with cake and gifts. While standing in my aunt's room, Betty wrote the names on a slip of paper and dropped the slips in a hat. A winner was drawn: Jeffrey. Since Jeffrey seemed to win many such contests, my brother grew suspicious. When he picked up the hat, Betty said, "Don’t look!" Unfolding the slips, he had the great early shock of his life. Every ballot was marked "Jeffrey." Later, when my brother refused to follow some instruction, Ben led him upstairs and spanked him — a grandfather who spanks! — ending, for my brother, the sweet ignorance of childhood.

In 1995, when my grandfather collapsed in the hospital, the first relative on the scene was my brother. In a nice twist of fate, Steven found himself charged with making life-and-death decisions for the man who had helped him recognize the unfairness of the world. And the winner is? Jeffrey! In the months following Ben's collapse, the family battle moved into its titanic phase, with Ben shuffling from doctor to doctor and everything up for grabs: the money, the legacy, and the story itself. When Grandma Betty died, I found out that my mother had lost this battle and that she and all of her children had been written out of the will — the factory and assets of the company are worth an estimated several hundred million dollars. Betty's last words came in a legal document: "I hereby record that I have made no provision under this WILL for my daughter ELLEN and any of ELLEN’S issue for reasons I deem sufficient." Her issue? It was like being called discharge, or refuse, or excrement. She swallowed a dime but it came out in the issue. So fate has placed me in the ideal storytelling position: the youngest son of the once-favorite daughter. Outside but inside, with just enough of a grudge to sharpen my sensibility. I am Napoleon staring at Paris from Corsica. All they have left me is this story. To be disinherited is to be set free.

Excerpted from Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. Copyright © 2006 by Rich Cohen. Published in April 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Sweet And Low

A Family Story

by Rich Cohen

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