Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda


Sugar substitutes have been a part of American life since saccharin was introduced at the 1893 World's Fair. In Empty Pleasures, the first history of artificial sweeteners in America, Carolyn de la Peña blends popular culture with business and women's history, examining the invention, production, marketing, regulation, and consumption of sugar substitutes such as saccharin, Sucaryl, NutraSweet, and Splenda. She describes how saccharin, an accidental laboratory by-product, was transformed from a perceived adulterant into a healthy ingredient. As food producers and pharmaceutical companies worked together to create diet products, savvy women's magazine writers and editors promoted artificially sweetened foods as ideal, modern weight-loss aids, and early diet-plan entrepreneurs built menus and fortunes around pleasurable dieting made possible by artificial sweeteners. NutraSweet, Splenda, and their predecessors have enjoyed enormous success by promising that Americans, especially women, can "have their cake and eat it too," but Empty Pleasuresargues that these "sweet cheats" have fostered troubling and unsustainable eating habits and that the promises of artificial sweeteners are ultimately too good to be true.


One cannot simply assume that everyone has an
infinite desire for sweetness, any more than one can assume
the same about a desire for comfort or wealth or power.

—Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power

In May 2008, I ate breakfast at Café du Monde in New Orleans. It was early in the morning and the café had just opened, but already the tables were filling up with customers ordering the customary cup of house coffee and a heaping plate of beignets. I’d brought a book with me and planned to do a bit of background reading for one of the chapters I was working on. But the scene was too interesting. I was drawn to the sounds of tourists, half American and half foreign, speaking many languages, and the smells of what joined them: mounds of fresh, enormous, heavily sugared donuts.

Next to me was a family of three that I quickly identified by their flowered-print shirts and white tennis shoes as American tourists. Each of them ordered a plate of beignets (three to a serving). I noticed that as the woman ate her first beignet, she looked around the table and, finding something missing, signaled the waiter. She pointed to the white packets of sugar at the table and asked for something. He returned from the kitchen with a small plate of pink, blue, and yellow packets. She opened a yellow one, poured it into her coffee, and drank it as she ate the entire plate of food.

That scene took me back to another in Atlanta, in a small conference room, more than a decade ago, to a moment that was the start of this book (though I did not know that at the time). I was working in corpo-

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