A disclaimer: I originally wrote this essay as part of a creative nonfiction class, working from David Foster Wallace’s incredible Consider the Lobster and its predecessor, M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster. I’m perfectly aware I don’t so much as touch their masterworks and that this has turned into a creature of its own. I’m also aware that neither footnotes nor writing of this length are friendly to deal with on this here blog. I won’t be hurt if you wave the flag of TL;DR and go running back to the comforting embraces of infographics and Facebook personality quizzes, but for those of you who muscle through it: thank you! I hope you goddamn love it.
An incredibly French gym teacher in a swishy Le Coq Sportif tracksuit is here to teach us a lesson about soda. He stands before my eighth grade class with perfect posture, a highball glass and a one-pound sack of refined sugar. He rhythmically doles out ten tablespoons, then looks out at us like a falcon trying to choose which fidgeting tween to subdue and shred alive for dinner. Finally, predictably, he announces, “Voila! Every can is zhees much!”
It doesn’t take performance art to know that sodas are sugary beyond reason, bricks in a wall of death if you drink enough to build one. On the other hand, Splenda and its ilk remain shrouded in scientific mystery even to scientists; to be certain, no physically fit Frenchman with a spoon and stage time ever taught me (or will teach me) what is in my Diet Coke. That soda, what is currently the marriage of Coca-Cola and Splenda, has dominated the low-calorie soft drink market since its debut in 1983, its revolving door of artificial sweetener partners notwithstanding. Saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, cyclamate, perillartine, miraculin, alitame — as long as the label bears the Coke logo and a bunch of zeroes, as a public, we’re willing to drink it. I’ll drink it. I put my faith in something every time I buy a diet soda; the porky, business casual-clad Sunday Funnies character that lives inside me quips to no one, “Well if it’s so bad for you how come the good people of Evanston Gas & Food keep a whole cooler of it?”
The answer gets political fast, which is probably why I spend some ninety-seven percent of my beverage-consuming hours plainly not considering the issue. Most of the time, it’s enough to assume that an authority out there in the American abyss (maybe the President or Deepak Chopra or Ashton Kutcher) has penetrated the minutiae of its chemistry and signed off on its safety for the rest of us – not ideal, but enough. After all, diet soda is entirely about satisfaction of a very limited variety: temporary, immediate, ironically short of splendor. Nobody ever remembers that magnificent diet soda they had that one time; often we’re just thirsty for another. But now, it’s not that I don’t want to trust the Amorphous Bureau of Trustworthy Somebodies that allow for over five thousand grocery items to include Splenda, it’s that we’ve brought such a chemical into existence in the first place.
Without writing the words “selective chlorination” any more than I just did, I can tell you that Splenda is six hundred times sweeter than anything nature has come up with. It begins with sucrose, a natural sugar, but given two chlorine atoms our metabolisms don’t process it as a carbohydrate or secrete insulin, making it safe for the diabetic population. The differences in its molecular structure cause it to appear flakier and taste sourer, texturally closer to pills pulverized with a credit card than the comfortingly uniform crystals of granulated sugar. Year-long tests on creatures ranging from starved rats to artificially inseminated rabbits to Marmoset monkeys and beagle dogs showed no harmful effects apart from a few pregnant female animals that experienced gastrointestinal distress from undigested Splenda. Still, between its long shelf life and its stability in processing, it remains the most versatile artificial sweetener, a door opener for the food and drink industry eager to meet our endless demand for sweet things.
Radical believers in the cult of the yellow packet not only deem it more evolved than other artificial sweeteners but as an improvement on nature. An average Diet Coke drinker won’t call it a food: “It’s a seasoning, a flavoring,” one offers, as though he’s introducing me to the gospel of Chef Paul Prudhomme over a roasted chicken. People in deep Splenda denial will throw around the word “efficiency,” implying it was borne out of the Great Sugar Famine as a solution and its consumers are eco-conscious forward-thinkers – but even to them it doesn’t merit being called food. The fabrication and quasi-euphemisms swelling around the word “additive” point to a distinction between food and edible nonfood: the former has a necessary relationship with nutritional value, bulk and naturalness while the latter is stuff we nebulously deposit into our mouths and happen to digest without dying.
Where it gets murky is that the category of edible nonfood is burgeoning in tandem with technology and diet-related diseases, really preventable ones that are killing an incomprehensible number of people. The way edible nonfoods are commonly categorized by food manufacturers makes them seem even more bizarre in concept: there are gelling agents like agar which make our food firm in texture, bulking agents like guar gum which create the illusion of there being more without actually increasing food’s nutritional value, and glazing agents like carnauba wax which render food shiny. Granted, it’s easy to make groceries with these ingredients sound as though they’re grade-D People Bait strategically placed in our paths by diabolical aliens, but it’s just as easy to subconsciously deem these qualities positive and desirable in food. Somewhere amid our carnivalesque delight that the solid squirt of filling in Combos can be made to taste like a whole pizza, the question lurks: should we be eating things that are not food?
The part of the edible nonfood-eating experience we’re most confident about is that it doesn’t have short-term consequences, but it would make good sense if it’s contributing to the shortening of our lives in a way that a jog or a trip to the farmer’s market can’t counteract. Still, so long as the Amorphous Bureau of Trustworthy Somebodies (or worse yet, an actually identified, actually trustworthy somebody) doesn’t specifically identify the consequence, the risk in each bottle or packet feels intangibly, almost pathetically low. Casual consumers of the stuff are more or less comfortable with the idea that, in this hand, we have seen true food and raised it health and pleasure. If we haven’t improved on nature, we’ve still granted ourselves practically unlimited access to the gustatory and aesthetic sensations of sweetness and shininess and jiggliness and so forth, all behind nature’s back.
Given the ubiquity of Splenda, even implicitly suggesting its slogan ought to be something like “the edible nonfood shortening our lives” feels sensationalist and condescending to everyone and no one, the sort of belief that can earn you snide social labels ranging from elitist to hippie to vampire. “I get immense satisfaction out of saying I haven’t had soda in over two years,” said a dear friend who has become more diet-conscious since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Even still, pressure to beat society to the punch was palpable as she added, “I’m also an asshole.” Despite the blueprints of sucralose’s molecular structure and almost-conclusive heath warnings before me, I’m tempted to beat my chest like a frat boy at a NASCAR-themed party and bellow, “Just shut up and drink the shit!” followed by a hearty “AMERICA!” There is something very American about the concept and culture of Splenda: the idea that we can have a free pass sparing us the need to exercise discipline and self-restraint similarly underpins everything from Eight Minute Abs to Internet porn to the lottery, each a gas-fiery burst of shallow enjoyment that doesn’t promote responsible behavior of any kind. What Splenda does promote is that we can get something for nothing; that it’s fine for indulgence to mutate into a given; that we’re entitled to having an unreality realized for us just because. We can scrape the depths of our willingness to be ignorant and put patches on our desires and weaknesses, but stacking quick fix on top of quick fix can’t possibly work. Our fantasy of “getting away with it” has to backfire when we’re trying to make a fool of our own physiology, as does the self-delusion in treating “good” as synonymous with “nontoxic.”
In theory I can talk myself into thinking of Splenda as rubber-flavored Satan dust for the mind, body and soul, but in those moments of droopy-eyed dehydration I still reach for it. Why? At the risk of sounding petty and irresponsible, I assign partial blame to the Frenchman and his swishy tracksuit. It was he who first inculcated the message in me that real-deal soda is a danger beverage, wicked and off limits. Nine years later, his voice reverberates in my mind issuing stern anti-sugar warnings as though we’re connected by invisible can-and-string telephones long distance. By contrast, though the troublesome aspects of Splenda abound, I don’t have a distinct enough health reason to shun it. Somehow, the consumer testimonials and my own speculative fears and even the image of beagles in a lab don’t meet the burden of proof in the fleeting moment when I decide I’d like my coffee sweet. Despite that it’s the tip of an unsettling moral and cultural iceberg and that it’s neither sugar nor seasoning nor food, I do derive a distinct enough satisfaction from it. It constitutes one miniature daily pleasure, like remembering an old favorite song or having an interaction with Comcast customer service that doesn’t leave you completely infuriated. Of course it’s unessential in the grand scheme of things, but the life-enhancing quality is there, humming just a little louder than the vague medical concerns and the tinny chemical off-notes of Splenda’s taste. It’s not a habit I can be proud of, but I can act like discreetly opening one more packet won’t make a difference to anyone. I’ll take the small pleasure where I can find it and hope the shit misses the fan.
 Never mind that the FDA has a track record of granting artificial sweeteners approval for the market before implicating side effects, some as minor as headaches, some carcinogenic. The list includes saccharin and aspartame, which are omnipresent nonetheless.
 During a product assessment in 1997, a year before its FDA approval, chemists claimed it had a drying effect and described its flavor as being slightly rubbery. One would think diet soda’s purpose is to escape such sensations.
 Besides the moral discomfort of having fed a bunch of beagles Splenda for a year.
 Particularly in that its flavor palate has far subtler notes of poison than those of Equal (aspartame) and Sweet ‘n Low (saccharin.)
 Actually, the scientists who discovered Splenda didn’t even mean for it to be food. As its history goes, a young Indian chemist named Shashikant Phadnis misunderstood his adviser when she instructed him to test the substance and instead tasted it. That may not have been the most prudent choice given that their original mission was to create a new variety of insecticide. I suspect Dr. Phadnis would make a fine reality television contestant given his blind willingness to lick powders of undetermined toxicity.
Like the ingestible equivalent of the mark-to-market accounting that preceded the Enron collapse.
So really, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all on the Free-Floating Zero-Calorie Glow-In-The-Dark Jelly Jiggle-Cubes Diet.
 I suppose re: Internet porn “enjoyment” really depends whom you ask, should you choose to ask at all.
 If it does, they’ll have to revise the entire story arcs of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and the Martin Lawrence movie Blue Streak, among others.
 Fine, I suppose the tracksuit didn’t do anything wrong.
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