1954: The Plague of Overweight and the Salvation of Reduced Calorie Foods (Except Candy)
In the early 1950s, Americans were gripped by a renewed fervor for reducing.
Life insurance studies had suggested that as many as 5 million Americans were obese, and another 20 million overweight. According to these measures, weight problems afflicted nearly 1 in 5 of the total population. Public health officials began sounding the alarm in 1952, and by 1954, even mainstream publications like LIFE Magazine had joined in promoting the new view on America’s waistline: ‘The most serious health problem in the U.S. today is obesity.” Sound familiar?
Today scientists are looking to high fructose corn syrup, estrogen disruptors, carbohydrate overload, and metabolic disorders to understand why, despite half a century of diet and exercise, despite lo-cal and lo-fat and lo-carb and hi-fiber, Americans keep getting fatter. Overeating just doesn’t explain the whole problem.
But in the 1950s, the problem was firmly located in individual behavior. Fatness was explicitly associated with weakness, venality, sin. LIFE Magazine put it plainly: “The uncompromising truth is that obesity is caused by gluttony.” The solution? Eat less. Less food, to be sure. But in an age dominated by the precision of science, the real measure of “less” was not volume but calories.
The food industry was quick to respond to the new market for reduced-calorie foods. Saccharine had been available since the late 1800s, prescribed by doctors for diabetic use but occasionally “abused” by dieters. Saccharine was of limited appeal, as it had a bitter and unpleasant aftertaste and was not easily adapted to cooking and canning processes. But a new synthetic sweetener, cylcamate, became available in 1950 under the trade name Sucaryl. Where saccharine had primarily been sold over the counter in pharmacies, cyclamate was quickly adopted by food processors, especially canned food and beverages. Saccharine sweetened drinks had been around since the 1920s but were not widespread or popular. But between 1950 and 1954, artificially sweetened drinks exploded. Well known brands like Lo-Cal and No-Cal were selling millions of cases, and there were something like 150 brands of cyclamate and saccharine sodas and drinks on the market. And “diet” foods including canned fruits and vegetables, skim milk, and lo-cal desserts moved out of the fringes of specialty “health” stores and into the aisles of mainstream grocery markets.
The marketing of artificial sweeteners was agressive and played directly into America’s new obsession with calorie counting. The consumer campaign for Sucaryl used lines like: “You can save a lot of calories by sweetening with Sucaryl and you can’t taste the difference.” And: “If you are not counting calories, you don’t need this new, non-fattening sweetener. If you are, you do.”
In this ad you can see how “eat less” doesn’t mean eat less food. The low calorie dessert looks and (presumably) tastes the same as its full calorie counterpart. Sucaryl makes reducing seem almost magical: you can’t see or even notice what is different about the Sucaryl dessert. Just make the right choice of sweeteners, and your weight problem is solved.
Sucaryl proclaimed itself “the new non-fattening sweetener that tastes just like sugar.” Which is to say, sugar is the fattening sweetener. Who was going to want to eat what was fattening? By implication, everyone needed to be counting calories to stave off the dread overweight, and so everyone should be using Sucaryl.
It was a shot fired over the bow, make that the bowl, of sugar. And candy was directly in the line of fire.
Saccharine and cyclamate made sweetness distinct from fattening. So America could have its sweet sodas and pies and canned peaches. But nobody knew how to make candy out of saccharine or cyclamate. Candy sweetness was sugar sweetness. What was a candy lover to do? The line seemed clear: candy — sugar — fattening — gluttony — sin.
Next time: candy redemption.