Friday, October 8, 2010

Carolyn de la Peña

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.

From a Q & A about her new book, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda:

Q: What inspired you to write a book about the history of artificial sweeteners?

A: I grew up in the 1980s in a house with a lot of substitutes. We had Egg Beaters, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, No Salt, Crystal Light, and Diet Pepsi. I really don't remember having butter, except in restaurants, until I was in college. So a big part of it is autobiographical: I wanted to know where these products came from, and how people like my mom - who was always watching her weight - had come to think of them as healthy options. And, of course, what impact this way of eating, which was entirely new really, has had on us as Americans. It is odd, when you stop and think about it, that "diet" and "low fat" became mantras for good health, especially considering that all of these products relied on chemicals made in a lab, most of which had not even existed just decades before. I thought there must be more to the story than "diet foods" make "diet people" - especially since these healthy substitutes rose in sales in a way that pretty much parallels the rise in what some people call the "obesity epidemic" that's occurred in the last few decades in the U.S. Of course, when I actually sat down to do a history of all those substitutes, I found each history (fat, salt, egg, and sugar) extraordinarily complex, and pretty unknown. So I started with the first, and most popular substitute, artificial sweetener. After finding little about them in what's been written about food, I decided that fifty years was long enough to wait for a history of these things, and I'd write it myself.

Q: What was the first artificial sweetener in America, and why was it created?

A: The first artificial sweetener, anywhere, was...[read on]
Learn more about Empty Pleasures at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Empty Pleasures.

--Marshal Zeringue