Every morning I have a cup of coffee with artificial sweetner. I know it’s bad for me, but I do it anyways. At work we have Sweet ‘N Low. Sweet ‘N Low is the bubblegum pink packet (with the Pink Panther as a mascot) with a musical staff and sheet music. Even though I use this product every day, I never wondered before where it got the name “Sweet ‘N Low.” Wikipedia to the rescue.
Apparently Sweet ‘N Low was invented in 1957 by the guy who invented, but failed to patent, the sugar packet, Benjamin Eisenstadt. He was the first guy to market and distribute the sugar substitute in the powdered form. According to Wikipedia, “the name ‘Sweet ‘n Low’ itself derives from an 1863 song by Sir Joseph Barnby, which took both its title and lyrics from an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, entitled ‘The Princess: Sweet and Low.’”
Upon learning this, I had a flash of anger. I couldn’t believe that this artificial sweetner, this CANCER in a packet, took its name from lines of poetry! I felt tricked, cheated into liking the sugar substitute because it was tapping into my innate desire for beauty. Those devilish marketers! How irresponsible and manipulative to play into people’s emotions and steal lines from the great Tennyson himself and use it to POISON the American people! I was about to go on a tirade about how we need to collectively fight back against this manipulation and abuse when my rationality kicked in and I realized that in 1957, we didn’t know that sugar substitute was linked to cancer.
Benjamin Einstadt and his son Marvin probably picked the name because of the play on words: “Sweet” and “Low Calorie.” It probably reminded Ben of the song, which was popular around the time he was a kid. Maybe he knew the Tennyson poem before the song, or maybe he didn’t. Maybe they didn’t think that deep into the whole thing. At this point I wondered what else there was on this Einstadt guy, and found the book “Sweet and Low: A Family Story” by Rich Cohen (hurrah for Google books). Cohen, the grandson of Einstadt, discusses how the family picked the name. The entire thing was a carefully outlined marketing plan, based on Ben’s love of the song, picking pink to stand out on the table, and using whimsical iconic labeling. As Cohen notes, “It has become a classic, as much a symbol of plastic America as the soup cans of Andy Warhol.”
At this point I was going to to into something here about the dangers of artifical sweetners, its neurological effects, and how we should be careful to understand marketing ploys. And even if the Sweet ‘N Low people didn’t know then that their product is linked to cancer when they created it, the American consumer needs to take responsibility for his own health knowing what it does now. And how I learned something about the dangers of getting carried away with emotion since I started to climb on my own soap box before my rationality came into check. And I might have even gone in to something about the Occupy movement, and how although I believe it’s super important to speak out, it seems most people don’t even know what they are speaking out against. It’s just trendy to jump on the bandwagon.
But instead of all that, which of course quickly bounced back and forth in my mind, the take-away I settled on is the beauty in understanding the origins of something. Artifical sweetners – these little cancer packets – didn’t start out that way. It was a family business, built on the American dream. The family was all immigrants in Brooklyn, trying to make it, and hitching on to the diet craze that was sweeping America. As Cohen puts it,
The money and the product and the people all come from Brooklyn, but it’s more than that. It’s the longing of the borough, the collective energy of the millions of immigrants who flooded Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century. The diet craze that turned Sweet ‘N Low into a household name is a concrete manifestation of that longing. Diet cola, the bathroom scale, Sweet ‘N Low – it all comes from Brooklyn, the cradle of a new culture, the culture of the new body, with its quest for complete freedom: freedom from history, freedom from exclusion, freedom from fat, freedom from the bad bodies of our anscestors. It’s the longing that created the fortune and destroyed the family.
How beautiful is that?? The American dream is summed up in a tiny artificial sugar packet. The irony though is through this search for freedom, Americans became obsessed with the idea of image and diet. Our quest for freedom bonded us into slavery as this idea took a life of its own and became bigger than we ever could have imagined. We created our own monsters.
I believe its important to know the effects of something, and be passionate about it, but maybe if we take the time to learn the cause, we can see it from a different angle. This is where we find the beauty.
And maybe that will make it a little bit sweeter.