Saturday, September 25, 2010

Carolyn de la Peña's "Empty Pleasures"

Carolyn de la Peña is a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is author of The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, and reported the following:
If you read only p. 99 of Empty Pleasures you learn about artificial sweetener innovation—a major theme of the book. On other pages I also consider those who marketed, experimented with, advocated for, and rejected artificial sweeteners. So this does reflect a primary theme, and an important one of the overall story.

Here the California Canners and Growers (CCG) react to the news that cyclamate, an artificial sweetener discovered in the 1930s and marketed under the brand name Sucaryl, has been found to elevate the incidence of bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Abbott Laboratories, Sucaryl’s maker (and CCG’s supplier), has delivered this information to the NIH and FDA, effectively guaranteeing that cyclamate will be taken off the market the following year.

The announcement could not come at a worse time for the CCG. They had just completed their yearly production of Diet Delight, a Sucaryl-sweetened low-calorie line of fruits. This left them with more than 3 million cans of fruit sweetened with no-calorie cyclamate that would soon be widely regarded as toxic by American consumers who, by and large, supported the ban and the data that precipitated it.

It was not only a tremendous financial loss, it was also a breach of trust. Richmond Chase had been one of the first food companies to use Abbott’s brand of cyclamate in the 1950s. They helped grow a market for the substance, transform the reputation of artificial sweeteners from adulterants to health tools, and encouraged the FDA to grant “generally recognized as safe” status to Sucaryl, thereby facilitating its broader use among canners and ice cream and soda manufacturers.

The story of the cyclamate ban, and the “shock, great shock,” Edwin Mitchell describes on p. 99 upon hearing this announcement, reminds us that the sweetener industry was developed by individuals who sought to increase market share and expand expertise by innovating first—but to do this they also had to trust pharmaceutical companies to deliver accurate data and negotiate risk. These were not easy relationships.

While Mitchell and the CCG did not ultimately benefit from their early work with cyclamates, their efforts helped birth a diet market. New low calorie canned fruits, salad dressings, jellies, puddings, and sodas, now formulated with saccharin, soon flooded the market. Eight years later, in 1977, the FDA would again announce a proposed ban, and this time consumers would revolt.
Learn more about Empty Pleasures at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue