“There is death in the pot!” The book of 2 Kings records that this was proclaimed, by several prophets, in response to the poisonous stew served to them. The warning allowed Elisha to add flour to the stew, and so doing, remove the harmful effects rendered by poisonous gourds.
This dire warning was reprinted boldly, in capital letters, on the front cover of chemist Fredrick Accum’s 1820 book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons.
|Accum's book cover. Isn't it gorgeous?|
As those who know me have discovered, I love food. It’s no surprise, really, that I was so captivated by Accum’s graphic book cover, frontispiece, and words. As an MA student many, many years ago, I even found myself nodding along to statements such as: “of all the frauds practiced by mercenary dealers, there is none more reprehensible, and at the same time more prevalent, than the sophistication of the various articles of food.”
Food adulteration, he wrote, was an “unprincipled and nefarious practice.”
|Accum's sense of drama was amazing.|
Today we worry about consuming GMO corn, artificial foods, antibiotic and/or hormone-filled meat while fondly trying to recall the golden years when food was real food.
In 19th century England, they were – more or less – trying to recall those days too. Londoners, you see, were purchasing and consuming foods contaminated with everything from alum to opium to Prussian blue dye. Indeed, food adulteration during the Victorian era was fraught with fraud, deaths, cover ups, and scandal and many accounts read like mystery or detective novels.
By mid-century there were a plethora of popular and scientific texts that warned the public about the harmful nature of the foods they were consuming. Both the popular and professional texts indicted the law for its ineffectiveness and castigated the men who knowingly sold adulterated food.
This included such things as adding chemicals to foodstuffs to make colours more vibrant or to make textures lighter, and even adding cheaper substances to foodstuffs without alerting the customer.
Public patterns of consumption played a very, very important role in increasing food adulteration. For example, tea coloured with Prussian blue, a mixture of ferric ferrocyanide, lime sulphate and turmeric, was prized for its appearance. Not only that, but adulterated beer was preferred by workmen to pure beer! The workmen found that the adulterants – hallucinogens and other narcotics – provided effects that the unadulterated drink could never match.
George Dodd, in his 1856 treatise The Food of London, mentioned repeatedly that the public was partially at fault. The love of aesthetically pleasing foods, he believed, prompted merchants to adulterate products so that it would be both appetizing and affordable. This practice was surprisingly widespread.
Bread, for example, was adulterated with alum so that it appeared white. Copper was added to pickles so that it appeared green. Dodd reprinted the text of a Times article which stated that “anatto is used only in the cheese destined for London; that it’s use is a mere conventionalism, like that of very white bread.” In response, he concluded that “our absurd taste for richly tinted cheese thus tempts men to adulterate.”
He blamed adulteration not only on “absurd” city tastes, but on a “love of cheapness” as well. Londoners were far more willing to purchase goods that were impossibly inexpensive. Thus, articles such as milk and coffee were mixed with cheaper substances – water and chicory respectively – to allow and encourage the London consumer to purchase them.
Most of the popular and scientific works decried this love of inexpensive and seemingly fancy goods. They labeled food adulteration in legal terms, simply calling it cheating or fraud. This language was most often used by the popular press, who was outraged particularly by the monetary losses of the consumer, more specifically, the already poor consumer. As an 1851 article stated succinctly, “if a person asks for oatmeal and pays for oatmeal, he has a right to expect oatmeal.”
Health, too, was a major concern. First, Londoners lost nutrients due to food substitutions and second, were made to eat and drink poisonous or unhealthy substances in their food.
In the case of the oatmeal, for example, the most common adulterant, barley, was not only substantially cheaper than oatmeal, but it possessed significantly less nutritive properties.
Likewise, another journal likened the mixing of water with milk to “committing murder by pinpricks” and “starvation administered in small doses.” More specifically, the author stated that adulterated milk did not provide the nutrients required for healthy life, thus “enfeebling the young, pinching the underfed, and stinting the sustenance allowed to the sick and aged.” Adulterating milk, in effect, preyed primarily on those most helpless in society.
Wealth, however, did not mean exemption from the dangers of impure or tainted food.
|Not even chocolate was exempt.|
An 1856 article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts contrasted a culinary day in the life of a wealthy family and a poor, labouring family. It found that both the rich and poor suffered greatly from the adulterations of foodstuffs.
The poor Delver family, for example, purchased brown bread adulterated with “potatoes, bone-ashes, and clay,” while the wealthy Smith’s family purchased fine, white bread that was adulterated with alum, “Indian-corn, rice, gypsum, plaster of Paris, and chalk.” While the wealthy fared poorly, because the adulterants used to make fine white bread were far more harmful to one’s health, the poor suffered because they lost valuable nutrients in the meager meals they could afford.
Fredrick Accum was one of the first scientists to speak out against food adulteration. He cited the use of lead as causing “terrible diseases” and that “wine adulterated with the minutest quantity of it, becomes a slow poison.” The scientists writing on the topic decades later followed in his footsteps and were quick to point out the poisonous nature of the foods being consumed.
Charles Cameron, a physician, stated that “several of the substances used in food sophistication are far from being harmless in their effects.” The eminent Dr. Hassall, for example, brought to attention that both invalids and children suffered early deaths due to adulteration.
Everyone, he wrote – no matter how healthy one felt – was susceptible to harm as “the fact must be borne in mind that some of the metallic poisons used are what are called cumulative.”
Tune in on November 4th for Panacea’s 1st blogiversary and the second installation of Death in the Pot. We’ll look at how investigations of food adulteration inevitably furthered the cause of science by demonstrating to the public that science had beneficial – and practical – applications.
Let me know what you think here or on Twitter – I’m @medhistorian.
 2 Kings 4:40, NIV.
 2 Kings 4:38-41.
 Fredrick Accum, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, London (1820), 5.
 F. B. Smith, People’s Health 1830-1910, New York, N.Y.: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., (1979), 210.
 Ibid., 211.
 Fredrick Accum, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, London (1820), 308.
 George Dodd, The Food of London, reprint of 1856 edition, New York, N.Y.: Arno Press Inc. (1976), 311.
 Ibid., 419.
 See: “Tricks of Trade,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts 510 (Oct. 1863), 238; “Milk,” All the Year Round 13,306 (March 1865), 128; “Facts and Scraps,” Ragged School Union Magazine (Nov. 1873), 263.
 “Oatmeal and its Adulterations,” Reynold’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art 7,164 (Aug. 1851), 88.
 “Milk,” All the Year Round, 128.
 “The Poor Man at Market,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts 128 (June 1856), 373.
 Ibid., 107.
 Charles Cameron, Lectures on the Preservation of Health, London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin (1868), 97.
 Arthur Hassall, Food: Its Adulterations and the Methods for Their Detection, London: Longmans, Green, and Co. (1876), 837.