Sugar and Spice.
The Sweet’N Low story, says author Rich Cohen, has been sugar-coated to hide the less palatable truth. This multimillion-dollar business, dreamt up by his grandfather, has been blighted by association with gangsters, government bribery and family feuds. Duff McDonald traces the bittersweet story of the artificial sweetener
The American Dream done right: invent a product, make a fortune, set your descendants up for life and then have it all summed up in fawning biographies written by legions of admirers. The American Dream done wrongly: invent a product, make a fortune, watch your family disintegrate, disinherit your daughter, then have it all summed up in an unflattering book written by your grandson. An example of the former: the Rockefellers. An example of the latter: the family of Ben Eisenstadt, inventor of Sweet’N Low.
When I visit Rich Cohen, Ben’s grandson, in upper Manhattan on a brisk day in late October, he doesn’t come across as the scion of an ultra-wealthy American family. And that’s for a good reason: he isn’t. When Cohen’s grandmother Betty died in 2001, she cut her own daughter – Cohen’s mother, Ellen – out of her will. This was because when Ben was 89, Ellen had recommended a cardiologist who had performed an operation that led to an infection that ultimately killed him. Beyond the seeming irrationality of Betty’s act, the move is memorable for its sheer spitefulness. After explicitly providing for her other children and their children, Betty’s will stated: ‘I hereby record that I have made no provision under this will for my daughter Ellen and any of Ellen’s issue, for reasons I deem sufficient.’
Cohen, an author and contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, is married with two children and, although his apartment is large by Manhattan standards, it’s certainly not the type of place you would expect his far wealthier relatives to be living in. Over a café con leche and sweet plantain at a diner around the corner from his apartment, he explains that his decision to tell his family’s story, warts and all, was certainly influenced by having been referred to in such a way in Betty’s will. ‘If she had not mentioned my mother in the will, that would have been better,’ he says. ‘But she went out of her way to tell her she was being disinherited. And although she listed all my cousins’ names very carefully, my siblings and I were just my mother’s “issue”. You don’t do something like that to somebody. It’s harsh.’
To his credit, Cohen doesn’t seem to carry that harshness like an albatross around his neck. He is friendly and not only seems to know the waitress at the restaurant we’re sitting in but, out on the street, he waves at two passers-by – a New York City irregularity if there ever was one. If he was angry with his family, he seems to have got it all out in the pages of his book. And he may well have been; the rest of his family split a fortune that Cohen estimates to be around $200 million, although the majority of that remains tied up in the company that makes Sweet’N Low. The Cohens received nothing.
Sweet and Low: A Family Story is Cohen’s passionate if unforgiving chronicle of the Brooklyn family’s enormous wealth and eccentricities, the corruption, incompetence and scandal. I ask him, point blank, if the book is a ‘fuck you’ to those who cut his immediate family off, and he insists it is not; he says it is a fair retelling of a fascinating saga. And although every member of his family plays a role, the real star of the show is the little pink Sweet’N Low packet itself.
Ben Eisenstadt was a serial inventor, not a one-shot wonder. Before he gave us Sweet’N Low, he and his wife Betty came up with the individual-portion sugar packet. But in introducing the artificial sweetener to the world, Ben laid claim to a pivot in the history of food and drink. He convinced us to value a food not for what it was, but for what it was not; we don’t want a sweetener for what it is – chemicals, essentially – but for what it isn’t: sugar. The Eisenstadts gave us the ability to have our cake and to eat it, too.
The Eisenstadts did what so many did when the great immigration wave of the 19th century deposited them on America’s shores: they settled in Brooklyn. Ben was a trained lawyer, but in the early 1930s he worked at Betty’s parents’ diner because her father was ill. Cohen was told many stories about the ‘early days’ by his parents and his grandparents. He writes of the complicated thrill of discovering a microfilm of an oft-discussed 1935 New York Times story about his father, a short-order cook who served legal advice on the side. ‘Had I been researching another family, it would have been an interesting enough find,’ he says. ‘But it’s this whole other thing entirely; it’s intense. More than once, I asked myself, “What am I doing?”’
The diner, as Betty told her grandson more than once over the years, was also a favourite hangout of Murder, Inc, the cabal of Jewish mobsters so-named for the expertise they provided to the city’s crime syndicate. According to legend, Betty was alone in the diner with Murder, Inc member Kid Twist when she went into labour with her first child, Marvin, in 1933. A daughter, Gladys, was born in 1935 and Cohen’s mother Ellen followed in 1938. Ben bought a bigger diner in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1940, and it flourished until the end of the war, when the yard became deserted. So, in 1945, Ben tore out the diner’s interior, bought a tea-bagging machine and opened the Cumberland Packing Company. The tea-bagging business would not be the source of his fortune, but in a classic example of the mysterious ways of fate, the tea-bagging machine would. It all started when Ben and Betty were eating lunch one day and lamenting a world already awash with tea bags, and thus one in which the bagging of tea was no route to riches. An uncooperative sugar dispenser opened their eyes to an opportunity: they could bag sugar like tea, in individual portions. It was something that had never been done before.
They didn’t have to go far to find potential customers, as 40 per cent of the world’s sugar supply was processed in Brooklyn. Ben went to industry giant Domino Sugar (whose sugar packets still grace many restaurant tabletops in the US) with the idea. Domino executives thought it was a great concept – so great that they built their own machine to do it and told Ben they would not be requiring his services.
With no patent, Ben had no recourse, so he found a few smaller sugar producers as customers. Within a decade, he was packing everything from sugar to perfume to duck sauce, and he had a nice little business to support his family. But he hadn’t even started.
Ben and his son Marvin invented Sweet’N Low in the 1950s, when post-war America was the land of plenty, of drive-ins and milkshakes – of too much sugar. Although sugar substitutes such as saccharin had been around for half a century, they had only been thought of as for diabetics or the obese; and, accordingly, they only came in pill form. Executives at a pharmaceutical company approached Ben and Marvin to ask them if they could come up with a powdered alternative to sucaryl pills, a sweetener introduced by Abbott Laboratories in 1950 containing a combination of saccharine and cyclamate. They accepted the challenge and, with the help of a chemist named Dr Paul Kracauer, the Eisenstadts devised the formula that would be Sweet’N Low: one part saccharin, 10 parts cyclamate and lactose to bulk up the mixture. Cohen calls Kracauer the Pete Best of the Sweet’N Low team; like the Beatles’ first drummer, Kracauer was there in the beginning but is often overlooked in historical retellings. When Ben and Marvin showed their findings to the pharmaceutical company, they were surprised to find that its executives were no longer interested. Fate intervened again; they decided to package and sell the product themselves, angry at the possibility of all their work going to naught. They got an 18-year patent and, with a name plucked from a song written with the words of a Tennyson poem, Sweet’N Low was born in 1957. Although Ben first marketed the product as a medicine, demand from restaurants and consumers soon outstripped the needs of the sick. ‘Ben and Marvin had tapped into the zeitgeist,’ writes Cohen. ‘They had boarded a bullet train called Fat But Still Hungry.’ This locomotive is very much in operation nearly 50 years later; in 2004, the Cumberland Packing Company produced an estimated $66.5 million worth of artificial sweetener.
The firm might be selling a whole lot more if the familial dysfunction that runs through nearly every page of the second half of Cohen’s book didn’t ultimately render the Cumberland Packing Company into third place, surpassed by Equal and NutraSweet (both of which contained aspartame), and the more recent Splenda. The company held on to the top spot of the market for decades, but the seeds of its fall to bronze-medal status – evidenced most clearly by McDonald’s recent decision to ditch Sweet’N Low in its 13,700 outlets in the US in favour of Splenda – were in place from the beginning.
Artificial sweeteners have been controversial pretty much since the day they were invented, owing to both real and imagined health concerns. Cyclamate was banned in 1969, and saccharin was first banned in 1913, but a sugar shortage during World War I resulted in a lifting of saccharin’s prohibition. That might have been the end of Sweet’N Low but, as Cohen tells it, his mother provided Ben and Marvin with advance notice to switch the gears on the tea-bagging machine. At the time, she was living with her family in Illinois, home of Abbott Laboratories, the makers of cyclamate. Ellen learned from playground gossip that the company would not be fighting the ban, so the Cumberland Packing Company was ready with a replacement for cyclamate: cream of tartar, dextrose and saccharin. Regulators would ban saccharin again in 1977, when it was determined that large doses resulted in bladder tumours in rats but, by that time, the US public was hooked. Congress received more than 100,000 letters in the week after the ban, and the ruling was quickly overturned.
‘When weighing the possibility of a future tumour against the here-and-now of a skinny life, the consumer chose the here-and-now,’ writes Cohen. After I notice Cohen does not use sugar or artificial sweetener in his coffee, I ask him what he thinks of the health risks. ‘I drink about four or five Diet Cokes a day and I don’t think that’s healthy,’ he says. ‘I’m a believer of everything in moderation. But do I think there’s anything hugely dangerous in any of this stuff? No.’
The dangers to the Cumberland Packing Company came from those running it, and Marvin in particular. He became tangled with gangsters, both engaged in and missed the pillaging of Cumberland’s coffers, failed to sell when offers were made to buy it, and sat idly by as competitive products (the first true threat being aspartame) chipped away at Sweet’N Low’s dominance. Cohen was no fan of Marvin by the time he wrote the book, mainly because Marvin watched his own sister get unfairly blamed for their father’s death and maintained it was none of his business. Cohen condemns his uncle with a simple assessment: ‘Marvin is a man telling a joke he himself does not get.’
In the 1980s, under Marvin’s watch, employees of the company made illegal campaign contributions to New York senator Alfonse D’Amato, who just so happened to introduce legislation that increased the intervals for regulatory review of saccharin from two years to five. They cooked the books (which Marvin re-cooked when he found out), defrauded the company, cheated the Internal Revenue Service (for which the company and Marvin pleaded guilty), and were suspected of cocaine smuggling. As far as the cocaine goes, despite finding a pair of scales and a pile of cash in one executive’s office, investigators ran into a dead end. But you can’t fault them for their reasoning: a sugar factory does seem like the perfect place to move a lot of white powder without raising any eyebrows.
For conspiracy theorists, Cohen drops a nice little nugget into the middle of his tale. Aspartame, which had been banned since its discovery in 1965, received approval in 1981. The chief executive of the company that made it realised that the challenge to its acceptence was not scientific (they hadn’t found a problem with aspartame itself) but regulatory (they were waiting around for the right people to take charge of whether or not it was approved). For example, officials at the US Food and Drug Administration during Democrat Jimmy Carter’s administration refused to approve it, so the chief executive waited until the business-friendly Republican Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, at which point aspartame was submitted once again and approved. And who was that chief executive? Donald Rumsfeld, now George W Bush’s secretary of defence.
Aspartame, the first new sweetener on the market in 25 years, went on to become an ingredient in both Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke, and the primary ingredient of a new powdered sweetener, Equal, which would outsell Sweet’N Low in 1985. Splenda (essentially a restructured sugar molecule known by the name of sucralose) was introduced in 2000 by Johnson & Johnson and overtook Equal soon after. By the end of 2004, Splenda had more than half the US market, Equal had 19 per cent, and Sweet’N Low had just 15 per cent. There is still a lot of money to be made from a 15 per cent share of a $350 million market, but it is a lot less than what it might have been.
But the irony is that although US consumers spend $350 million a year on artificial sweeteners, it isn’t making much of a difference. As of last year, 24.5 per cent of American adults were obese, up from 15 per cent in 1980. More than nine million children – 15 per cent of the total – are either overweight or obese. ‘We are whales swimming open-mouthed through the food court,’ writes Cohen. ‘We are what we eat, and we don’t know what that is.’
The story behind the story of Sweet’N Low – that of the Eisenstadt family – is wonderful to start with, but tragic in the end. Marvin is a convicted felon; Cohen’s aunt Gladys, who took to her bed with a mysterious illness as a young woman, did not leave the house again until her mother’s funeral, more than 30 years later; his uncle Ira is an eccentric who lives in a house full of cats; and Betty blamed Ellen for Ben’s death and disinherited her and her children. When I ask Cohen who he’s angry with, he says it was Betty at first and then Gladys and Marvin. ‘They were responsible and did not do a thing.’ Cohen says this without much emotion; he saved the real fire for his book.
Cohen seems only half serious when he predicts that his family will not deviate from the cliché of rags-to-riches-to-rages in three generations. This remark helps explain why he is able to sit and chat with a porcelain container full of Sweet’N Low between us and not succumb to an urge to throw it across the room. After all, the Cumberland Packing Company is now in the hands of the third generation, Cohen’s cousin Jeffrey, so there would be nothing left for Cohen’s children anyway. Instead, he focuses on the positive. Grabbing the container that holds the packets of sweetener, he makes a point I hadn’t even thought of: ‘Not only did my grandfather invent these packets but, think of it, without him, this container
might not even exist. It is pretty amazing.’
Nor, for that matter, did his grandmother’s coup de grâce come as a total surprise. ‘It was not like this big breach happened at the end,’ says Cohen. ‘We had an on-again, off-again relationship my whole life. This story has been happening since I was born. But it had a kind of ending. My grandmother died, we were disinherited and we stopped communicating, so I did what I needed to. I took possession of the only inheritance I was given: my history. For me and for my kids.’
Cohen says he got his storytelling ability from his father, a bestselling author; but to the rest of us, his family bequeathed a revolution. They gave us the experience of sugar without the penalty, but in doing so, allowed the contradictory urges that lie at the heart of the modern American diet: to be simultaneously cautious and preposterous. To see it, walk into a McDonald’s. You may not see Sweet’N Low any more, but you can hear its legacy millions of times a day: ‘I’ll have a Big Mac, large fries and a Diet Coke’. It makes sense, doesn’t it?