Pebbles in Your Peas? Strychnine in Your Stout?

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Music – “Bad Food” from He Lie by Blackie. Released: 2009.

Increasingly into the 21st century, we have become more and more concerned about what’s in our food. This is especially significant today, as most of us do not produce our own food and must trust the people who grow our fruits and vegetables, raise the cattle and chickens we eat, and process a diversity of food items for future use.

19th Century Food Adulteration (Photo Credit:  www.thecooksguide.com)

19th Century Food Adulteration (Photo Credit: http://www.thecooksguide.com)

In the 19th century, and even earlier, food adulteration was an enormous problem, and in England particularly. A German chemist, Frederick Accum, who emigrated to London in 1793, addressed the issue of food adulteration and published several notable publications, among them, “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food”, published in 1820.

Food adulteration was typically used not to preserve the foods, but a tactic by unscrupulous food producers and manufacturers to ‘bulk’ up the items by adding additional components, thereby making the original food item look satisfactory by adding chemicals, colouring agents, etc. to sell to the masses. In addition, adulterating food items could enable cheaper ingredients to be passed off as more expensive ones, thus earning more $$$ for the perpetrator.

Arsenic, used by some candy makers in England to sweeten their products. (Photo Credit:  www.dailymail.co.uk)

Arsenic, used by some candy makers in England to sweeten their products. (Photo Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

For example, in London hotels in the early 19th century, used (“spent”) coffee grounds could be purchased for a few pence a pound. They were often adulterated with a few other roasted beans, sand or gravel and mixed with chicory, which itself may have been adulterated with roast carrots or turnips. The dark brown coffee colour could be achieved by the addition of burnt sugar.

Alum was used by some bakers to whiten the bread and make it heavier. (Photo Credit:  www.bbc.com/news)

Alum was used by some bakers to whiten the bread and make it heavier. (Photo Credit: http://www.bbc.com/news)

Definition of an adulterant (Photo Credit:  www.gospelminutes.org)

Definition of an adulterant (Photo Credit: http://www.gospelminutes.org)


In “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food”, by Accum, he notes that very few food items at the time were not adulterated. Tea, coffee, bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, salad oil, pepper, vinegar, mustard, cream are just a few he mentions and he laments that “…there are some substances which are scarcely ever to be procured genuine”.

Bread was adulterated with plaster of Paris, bean flour, chalk or alum. Alum is an aluminum-based compound, often used in manufacturing detergent today, however, in the past, it was added to make the bread whiter and heavier. Other adulterations included the addition of red lead in Gloucester cheese, pickles impregnated with copper (turns them a nice green colour), poisonous Cherry Laurel leaves in puddings and custards and throat lozenges adulterated with clay.

Frederick Accum's "A Treatise on Adulterations of Food", which he published in 1820

Frederick Accum’s “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food”, which he published in 1820

Accum also found instances of vinegar “sharpened with sulphuric acid”, cayenne pepper coloured with red lead and confectionary with copper arsenite to produce an emerald green colour…the list goes on and on.

In addition to Accum, Arthur Hill Hassall and Thomas Wakley took up the cause as well, into the 1850’s. Hassall’s untiring work led him to find lead chromate in custard powders, Prussian blue and copper salts in tea, sawdust in cayenne pepper and Nux vomica (strychnine) in Porter and Stout. In England, the first Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860 and later underwent several revisions.

Food adulteration continues around the globe today, despite regulations from various agencies. I located a list of common adulterants and contaminants in food produced in India and was appalled at the lengthy list. Artificially coloured saw dust in tea, sand and marble chips in food grains and pulses, methanol in alcoholic liquor, cadmium in fruit juices, cobalt in water, mercury in treated seed grains, nitrates and nitrites in drinking water, asbestos in polished rice and much more. The introduction to the list (Common Adulterants/Contaminants in Food and Simple screening tests for their detection) points out that “Adulteration in food is normally present in its most crude form, prohibited substances are either added or partly or wholly substituted. In India normally the contamination/adulteration in food is done either for financial gain or due to carelessness and lack in proper hygienic condition of processing, storing, transportation and marketing. This ultimately results that the consumer is either cheated or often become victim of diseases” (sic)

Engraving commenting on the hazards contained in 19th Century foods, through adulteration.  (Photo Credit:  www.edible-history.com/2013)

Engraving commenting on the hazards contained in 19th Century foods, through adulteration. (Photo Credit: http://www.edible-history.com/2013)

Food adulteration continues today. A more blatant and recent example stems from the 2008 Chinese milk scandal. Infant formula and milk products were adulterated with melamine. An estimated 300,000 children were affected. Several died from kidney stones and other kidney damage and conservative estimates suggest that 54,000 babies had to be hospitalized. Following investigations into the scandal, several criminal prosecutions followed, and at least two individuals were executed. Still others were given life imprisonment or suspended death penalties. Down the road, it’s only a guesstimate as to how many of these babies suffered permanent damage. Then too, more than 22 children in India died recently, with many more becoming ill as the result of organophosphous poisoning in their school lunch.

Cartoon from August 4th, 1855 issue of Punch, about food adulteration.  (Photo Credit:  Herbalgram  - American Botanical Council - Steven Foster, 2011)

Cartoon from August 4th, 1855 issue of Punch, about food adulteration. (Photo Credit: Herbalgram – American Botanical Council – Steven Foster, 2011)


"Preliminary Observations", from Frederick Accum's "A Treatise on Adulterations of Food", 1820

“Preliminary Observations”, from Frederick Accum’s “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food”, 1820

I am not so sure that, at least in this country, we worry more about adulterated foods in the sense that fillers or otherwise inedible and potentially toxic ingredients are added to our foods, than we are with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, soil additives, processing chemicals and such. Either way, it’s still food adulteration, as I see it. “Cave ne comedentis” (Let the eater beware!)

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About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,124. What next? More shelves!
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4 Responses to Pebbles in Your Peas? Strychnine in Your Stout?

  1. I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one today..

  2. Very nice Posting! Thanks.

  3. Ramona says:

    It’s amazing that people lived at all! ….
    and we think we have a lot to worry about with food additives?

  4. Interesting post! I’ve seen many references to food contamination in 18th-century cookbooks. Amelia Simmons (“American Cookery,” 1796) mentions “deceits” used by food sellers to make their goods look fresher, and the need to be vigilant when shopping — for fish, butter, etc. (She advised people to buy butter from “honest, neat, and trusty dairy people.”) And flour was apparently often contaminated — with plaster of Paris, as you mentioned, and also ground stones and bones. Ugh!

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