Carolyn de la Pena: What’s that diet soda teaching you?

We welcome a guest post today from Carolyn de la Peña, author of Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda. In her book, de la Pena sheds light on the invention, production, marketing, regulation, and consumption of sugar substitutes such as saccharin, Sucaryl, NutraSweet, and Splenda. In this post, she describes how these “sweet cheats” have fostered troubling and unsustainable eating habits that contribute to America’s obesity epidemic.–ellen

It seems that everywhere we turn these days there is another news story about obesity in America, particularly among children. “Supersized” portions and lack of exercise are contributors to expanding waistlines. But a conversation about the U.S. obesity epidemic must also address our relationship to food, something that is important for long-range health. One development that has made a good relationship with food more difficult in recent decades: artificial sweetener.

Artificial sweetener’s marketers (paid by the artificial sweetener industry) have done a lot to malign sugar as a bad ingredient in order to promote sweeteners as good. They’ve really gotten us to focus on sugar, specifically, as being something we have to avoid if we want to be thin.  And while too much sugar is a bad thing, a little sugar—or a soda once in a while—is not really a huge health problem.

What’s actually more troubling is that artificial sweetener has made it possible for us to believe we are healthy while we are ingesting nearly constantly. A large number of people—more than you might think—drink 6 to 8 diet sodas a day. Rather than having something sweet now and then, and letting the body take the calories in, use them, burn them, and then later having something sweet again, it’s become normal to have sweets (without calories) all the time. So we’ve learned to be constant consumers.

Add to this the fact that artificial sweetener is much, much sweeter than sugar or fructose (300-600 times sweeter, per part), and it seems possible that all that constant sweet consumption might encourage us to prefer the taste of sweet in other forms (like breakfast cereal and wheat thins), most of which are not calorie-free.

As consumers we’re also confused about just what “good sweets” are, and how much of them we should eat. Sugar and corn syrup manufacturers pay for research that shows us that their products are good and those that use artificial sweeteners are bad.  And vice versa.  And they all put out ads to make these claims.  The result is a kind of “sweet confusion” that ultimately makes it hard to know what’s good for us.

All of the focus on ingredient substitutions—and artificial sweeteners were the first of these, really—just takes our attention away from the fact that healthy consumption, in all forms, requires moderation. We can pull the cholesterol out of fat, and the sodium out of salt, and calories out of sugar, and then we can eat all we want, all the time—theoretically. But then we just turn ourselves into giant disposal systems for food.

If we want our children to have healthy relationships to food, a useful starting point is learning that food pleasure is good, that food pleasure produces physical consequences, and that we cannot have pleasure all the time. We have to moderate our appetites to stay healthy. This is hard, especially in a culture that’s constantly telling us that by buying and eating food we’ll be sexy, happy, and lovable.  But we have to do it.

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