The Splenda Thief

She was in her 20s, dressed to the nines in size 4 Armani, made up for the office, and hunched over the sidebar at my neighborhood Starbucks, shoveling packets of Splenda into her purse.

I’m not proud of my response.  I watched her for several long seconds recalling the various articles and listserv notes I’d read recently about people with eating disorders consuming huge quantities of artificial sweeteners, sometimes to the point of experiencing “aspartame poisoning.” At best, this young woman was stealing the equivalent of two boxes of Splenda because she didn’t have the time or money to buy it at the grocery store.  At worst, she was stealing and poisoning her body in order to taste “something for nothing.”  I should have shown her compassion.

Instead, when the packets were overflowing from her Gucci handbag and she would not meet my gaze, I said in a regrettably snarky tone, “Think you’ve got enough of that stuff?”

She threw me a stony look, clenched her bag to her chest and fled, wobbling down the block on her too-high heels.  Starbucks was giving the stuff away, so it wasn’t exactly shoplifting.  It was worse.

“Something for nothing” is becoming the name of the game in our culture as it is in eating disorders. Zero-calorie desserts. Waifs who binge. Perfection without connection. Sublime starvation. Size zero fashions. Cadaverous beauty. Status without substance.  Oxymoron is too kind a term.

Do I sound angry?  You bet! Because this is all a huge, sad, inexcusable con that’s rooted in personal terror, encouraged–and exploited–by our all-consuming society.

I’ve no idea what specific demons were chasing that woman in Starbucks, but she was so intent on her mission to steal fake sugar that she had no idea she was stealing in plain sight of everyone in the store. I was the only one to call her out, but the store was full of witnesses. And we all could see that what she was stealing had no meaningful value. It didn’t supply energy or nutrients.  Its value was entirely negative.

Splenda creates an illusory taste that is 600 times sweeter than sugar. More than 90 percent of it is not metabolized by the body. And according to recent studies, it does not satisfy the craving for sweetness. Instead, it appears to subvert attempts to lose weight. Rats fed artificially sweetened yogurt ate more and gained more weight than rats fed yogurt sweetened with real sugar. This may explain why people who drink diet sodas seem to be at greater risk for obesity than those who drink regular soda.

So the Splenda thief wasn’t even stealing “something for nothing”–she was stealing single-digit calories that would just keep stoking her craving for more, more, more, until she finally ate something that would satisfy her brain and body. In the meantime, she’d remain in that same driven stupor she’d been in when I caught her with her hand in the fake sugar jar, able to think of nothing except where and how she was going to get her next fix of imitation sensation. I wouldn’t want to be her boss, her client, her partner, or her friend when she was in that state.  She’d have nothing more for them than she had for her own body.  But she’d be costing them energy and frustration, just as she was costing herself.

“Something for nothing” is a lie that consumerism loves to perpetuate. And America has fallen for it over and over, not only in the ersatz foods we eat and drink but in “no-cost mortgages,” “zero-financing” credit scams, and now, thanks to reality TV, even zero-talent instant celebrity.

You don’t have to have an eating disorder to get caught up in the con, but eating disorders are a “perfect” reflection of what’s going on throughout our society. Everywhere we look we’re told that perfection depends on mastering the art of weightlessly having it all. Meanwhile, the negative consequences of chasing this empty ideal just keep mounting.

True value in life comes from substance, focus, passion, energy, effort, creativity and strength.  It has weight and depth, and requires time to develop and appreciate. Until we recognize and actively defend the true sources of value in our own lives and throughout our culture, we are all, like the Splenda thief, just stealing from ourselves.

Photo courtesy of / CC BY 2.0


  1. Great post! Your third-to-last paragraph really articulates how eating disorders are just one example of America’s obsession with “something for nothing.” America’s industrialization of the food market is another great example…but that’s another post.

    And your last paragraph is incredibly refreshing to read. I agree 100%.

  2. What an amazing post that ties together so many cultural issues. This insight is one more reason why I’m loving the Ms. Mag Blog.

  3. I know I’m probably fixating on the wrong part of this post, passing right by the message intended, but I find it upsetting that “the rest of us” have to pay for this woman’s empty theft. Perhaps it is an extension of the falsehood in “Something for nothing,” but the phrase “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is something I learned in high school economics and it has stuck with me. Maybe it can be extrapolated to mean that all of our actions have consequences, whether moral or financial, and existing in a fake sugar world is taking its toll…

  4. Right on!

  5. Where is your compassion? This woman is obviously a victim of the harsh messages women experience through media/society…and you ask who is paying for it? Hopefully it is corporate america, the same entity that creates these false wants to begin with.

    • Belle of Acadie says:

      Corporate America will never pay for it, it is a money machine for more, more, more. We pay with our own valuable time, our money, we believe their lies and it only hurts us unless we educate ourselves about this and learn to be extremely critical about these institutions and limit the power we give to them unknowingly. We can define beauty, health and happiness for ourselves. Deep down we know what we truly need versus what we want or are taught to want. All that we need for fulfillment I believe is in our spiritual selves.

  6. I feel really sad for this woman and would love to know about her backstory. I appreciate your honesty about your approach to her. Women like this need other women to support her and not pass judgment. Perhaps, if she had received more woman-centered support she wouldn’t thrive off of splenda in the first place.

  7. Very thought-provoking post. I agree that your third to last paragraph really hits your argument out of the park. But, I do wonder about framing the piece around this individual woman — I feel too often we blame individuals for “eating disorders” when really it is our society that has an eating disorder on a massive scale. So much so,in fact, that it seems we should celebrate those who do NOT have disorders as they are sadly more rare in a society such as ours… I think it’s Jean Kilbourne that makes the point that the majority of women exhibit disordered eating.

  8. I’m furious with her, and with the *regular* that thieves Splenda packets daily from my shop. It’s obviously never in front of me, and with the rush, I can’t figure out which one is doing it, or I’d just have to stop everything and replenish it after they leave. Instead, it’s only later that I discover, yet again, that all the Splenda I put out is gone. It’s totally ridiculous and infuriating to a shop owner. I’m paying out much more to replace their Splenda than the price of their coffee – c’mon! And a lot more in frustration just trying to keep some Splenda available for the others who would want it. Really. Frustrating. Will be getting in a measured bulk dispenser and buying more expensive Splenda in bulk just to stop this daily point of frustration. Isn’t there anyone with a shred of honesty left?

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