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Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda Hardcover – September 27, 2010

4 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


In this cultural history, de la Pena shows how everyone from scientists to food conglomerates to ad agencies to women's magazines have conspired to make Americans believe we can have our sweets and eat them too.--BarnesandNobleReview.com

In its most intriguing chapter, the book details the "saccharin rebellion" . . . [which] reveals much about ordinary Americans' perceptions of pleasure in a risk-filled world.--A Nota Bene selection of The Chronicle of Higher Education

[De la Pena] is diligent, mostly even-handed and non-polemical.--National Review

De la Pena's substantial skills as a social and cultural historian are on fine display. . . . Illuminating discussion. . . . Offers a too rare glimpse of how the business of chemistry actually works.--Chemical & Engineering News

A welcome and an enlightening examination of consumption and its consequences.--PopMatters

Fascinating.--The New Yorker "Book Bench" blog

An insightful, multidisciplinary work particularly attractive to students of American studies.''--Journal of American History

This book does an excellent job of exploring the contested history of artificial sweeteners and their use in packaged food and drink. In de la Pena's hands these substances become windows onto important aspects of the American experience.--American Historical Review

Empty Pleasures is full of insights about artificial sweeteners.--Gastronomica

Carolyn de la Pena conducts a thorough review of artificial sweeteners and how their role and perception have changed over the years.--Wilmington Star-News

A well-cited, thought-provoking, and fascinating analysis of the sociological, psychological, political, and financial underpinnings of the promotion and use of artificial sweeteners in the U.S. . . . Highly Recommended--Choice

Charmingly written and exhaustively researched, de la Pena's exploration provides a fascinating look into a seemingly commonplace food additive.--ForeWord Magazine

Absolutely fascinating. . . . This is not a book that scolds you for your gum habit or 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.--SeriousEats.com

Powerfully engaging . . . [a] highly readable narrative. . . . Strongly recommended for general readers who are interested in changes in the American diet and in their own food choices and for collections that focus on the history of industrial food.--Story Circle Book Reviews


Empty Pleasures, a rich and rewarding read, makes the tools of cultural analysis available to a wide range of readers. De la Pena's argument, that artificial sweeteners provide consumers with a way to exercise 'indulgent restraint,' will surely re-energize scholarly and policy discussions of the American diet.--Jennifer Scanlon, author of Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

At a time when we are overwhelmed by a million studies about the purported 'obesity epidemic,' Carolyn de la Pena's extraordinary book comes along as a refreshing historical perspective on dieting practices, commercial opportunism, and the social construction of 'expert' authority. This gracefully written study offers a bracing antidote to the food industry's craze for nutraceuticals, functional foods, and other technological fixes for public health problems.--Warren Belasco, author of Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food

Empty Pleasures provides a fascinating window into the complex history of artificial sweeteners in the United States, blending business history with discussions about how these products actually worked within the lives of consumers. An in-depth, nuanced study.--Amy Farrell, author of Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 1St Edition edition (September 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807834092
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807834091
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,938,135 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Like many, I'm a long-time a consumer of artificial sweeteners. Except for baking, I've pretty much given up sugar. I habitually reach for the "pink stuff" to sweeten my coffee and tea, I sprinkle Splenda on my morning cereal, and I choose diet sodas that are sweetened with NutraSweet. Now, after reading Empty Pleasures, I understand more about the why and how of these food habits--and not just mine, but those of most American consumers. Carolyn De La Peña has given me something to think about.

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda explores an important and completely overlooked chapter in America's food history: how and why and in less than three decades, consumers changed from craving sugar to rejecting it in favor of the seductive pleasures of artificial sweeteners. The book is a powerfully engaging and (for the most part) highly readable narrative that tells the story of Americans' growing acceptance of sweet-tasting food products and outlines the development of artificial sweeteners, their impacts on the food industry, and the cultural implications of our changing food preferences.

During the early twentieth century, sugar was promoted as a healthful food that contributed calories and energy in often nutritive-poor diets. As a result, consumers refused to accept such commercial products as soft drinks in which the cheaper new chemical, saccharin, was substituted (without their knowledge) for the more expensive sugar. What--it wasn't really sugar? Consumers felt cheated, and manufacturers were forced to return to their customers' preferred sweetener.

But in the postwar 40s and 50s, consumers' preferences began to change, spurred by women's growing interest in becoming slim and sexy.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book focuses on the promoters and promotees of artificial sweeteners for the greater part of the Twentieth Century. From the period in which the first commercial sweetener saccharin was considered adulterants (secretly substituted to some degree for more expensive sugar) in an era when sugar was wholesome and nutritious, Ms. de la Peña takes the narrative full circle, especially focusing on the fight to salvage saccharin (led by weight-conscious people -- primarily women -- and the industry-supported Calorie Control Council) when it was almost removed from the market after cancer developed in rats fed huge amounts of the substance. (The Delaney Clause -- the 1958 amendment to the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 -- forbade the FDA approval of a substance shown to cause cancer in man or other animals.) She offers many new insights into the woman's role in food selection for the family, a process in which the homemaker exercised considerable control in the period well before "women's lib." While some in the food industry were early champions of artificial sweeteners (saccharin and cyclamates) in the 1950s and 1960s, it's refreshing to know that others were concerned about safety despite their commercial success. She also analyzed the triumphant NutraSweet and how its marketing -- from both the producer's perspective and that of the food industry -- reaching the conclusion that creativity and, to use my word, manipulation, were both instrumental.
However, some chapters grew excessively long, almost repetitive in some cases. Moreover, there were several factual errors and omissions. For example, the author notes that Love Canal was in New Jersey. She stated that Monsanto bought the NutraSweet Company; in actuality, Monsanto purchased G.D.
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