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Thinking Pink: Tracing the History of Sweet 'N Low

by George Bodarky
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Sweet 'N Low factory

George Bodarky, WFUV

Ask just about anyone what comes in a little pink packet and they’ll likely tell you -- Sweet 'N Low.

Sweet ’N Low is ever present in our society.  You’ll find the zero-calorie sweetener in coffee shops, in little glass trays at the diner, and in the company kitchen.  But, what you might not know is Sweet ’N Low was born and raised in Brooklyn -- by the same family that’s still tending to it today.

In the land of zero-calorie sweeteners, these four words are kind of like the shot heard around the world.

“This is so unsanitary.”

81-year-old Marvin Eisenstadt says that’s what his mother said to his father about a fly and a used spoon in an open sugar bowl at a Brooklyn restaurant.  This was in the latter part of the 1940’s, and at the time Eisenstadt’s father was making tea bags -- something he started after the cafeteria he owned across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard went belly up when World War Two ended.

“Eureka! My father said why not put sugar in a tea bag.”

And that’s just what they did.  They made sugar packets at the cafeteria Eisenstadt’s father turned into a factory named The Cumberland Packing Corporation.  It was a request from a drug company for a sugar substitute a few years later that led to the birth of Sweet’N Low.  Eisenstadt, who graduated from college with a degree in chemistry, says he came up with the formula, but the drug company then changed its mind.

“I got very upset because I worked really hard developing that formulation and I said to my dad “why not do it ourselves.”

Sweet ’N Low was initially a mix of saccharine, cyclamate and dextrose.  But, the cyclamate was removed after the FDA banned it in the late 1960s citing studies that the food additive caused cancer in lab rats.  Eisenstadt says he’s since added other ingredients to soften his sweetener’s aftertaste, and he’s quick to point out that to date no legitimate studies have shown artificial sweeteners make humans sick.  

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, is Sweet ’N Low’s pink packaging.  Eisenstadt says they settled on pink so the product would stand out.

“We called it Sweet ’N Low because that’s my father’s favorite poem by Tenyson."

The musical treble clef in Sweet’N Low’s logo – Eisenstadt says – was his wife’s idea.  

Eisenstadt credits the low-calorie soda craze of the mid-1960s with sparking the nation’s diet revolution and catapulting Sweet ’N Low to success.  He says it was at that time that A & P put their little pink packets in all of their supermarkets.  And Eisenstadt proudly stresses that they got on store shelves well before the yellow and blue packets, Splenda and Equal, and any other calorie-free sweetener for that matter.

“They followed us, they competed with us, which is the American way, but we are the ones that started it all.”

Today, Cumberland Packing Corporation employs about 500 people at that same Brooklyn factory where it all started.  They produce about a million packets of Sweet ’N Low a day.  Workers methodically box them up by hand. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eisenstadt says the company could reduce their workforce by acquiring more sophisticated machinery, but it’s important for the family business to keep local jobs.  

“If I wanted to I could purchase those machines throughout the plant and instead of having 500 people work for us, I would have about 80.  My bottom line would be much bigger, but neither I more my children would do that.”

Eisenstadt has turned day to day operations of Cumberland over to his sons.  But, he still spends plenty of time at the factory, making rounds and greeting workers.  

In addition to putting out Sweet ’N Low, Cumberland Packing has grown to produce other sweeteners, including Sugar in the Raw, Stevia in the Raw and Monk Fruit in the Raw. 
 

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