Crazy Food Adulteration in the 1800's

Posted by Eric Troy on 03 Dec 2013 15:42

Privacy/Cookies | Contact | Affiliate Disclosure

Follow or Subscribe


We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

While perusing Fennema's Food Chemistry, I came upon some interesting information about food in the 1800's that I thought might serve to illustrate a point. Today's food consumers are rightly concerned about the safety of food produced by "big business" and are especially concerned about chemicals that food might be adulterated with. However, what the average consumer doesn't realize is that the scandalous adulteration that sometimes happens today is quite rare and highly regulated compared to the 1800's, when fraudulent, and quite dangerous, adulteration of food products was a very real and common threat.

Fennema1 writes that concern and outrage was provoked by A Treatise on the Adulterations of Food, written in the early 1800's by Fredrick Accum2. The full titles\, in the style of the times, was a bit more cumbersome: A Treatise on the Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting The Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spirituous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, And Others Articles Employed in Domestic Economy and Methods of Detecting Them.

There were at least four editions to this book, and Accum claims in the introduction of the fourth (which is called an "Advertisement"), that four thousand copies of the book were sold within one year after its publication. For the 1800's, that's a lot. Fennema mentions that F.A. Filby, the writer of Another Book on Adulteration called A History of Food Adulteration and Analysis (1934), considered some of Accum's claims to be somewhat overstated. But, both authors agreed on a significant number of adulterants.

First I'd like to write about some of the more crazy sounding practices Accum talked about. They will at least give you a chuckle. Some of them are a bit hard to swallow but if they are true, we should think twice before complaining about the sorry state of "modern food."

In the 1800's foods were commonly adulterated with shocking materials and contaminants!
In the 1800's foods were commonly adulterated with shocking materials and contaminants!

Disgusting Practice of Rendering Butcher's Meat, Fish, and Poultry, Unwholesome

Here, Accum is talking about a practice known as blowing. According to him, butchers would, quite often, stick a tube of some kind into a lamb or veal shank, or a fish, and blow into it, so as to make it look more plump and to "make it appear white and glistening." Can you imagine some unwashed, stinky dude, blowing his putrid breath into the meat or fish before he sales it? Accum could, and he said that, for sure, this would contaminate the flesh with all sorts of terrible diseases. A quill or the stem of a tobacco pipe was, apparently, used to put the air in. It is not clear at all how and why the air stays inside the meat or fish once it is blown in. It seems to me it would just slowly leak back out. However, Accum said that the method of detecting the fraud was to squeeze or press on the product, by "placing the thumb on each side of the orifice," at which time it would deflate. This all sounds quite incredible, but, I can see how it might have been tried. After this, Accum goes a bit off the deep end.

He goes on to talk about another way of rendering meat unwholesome, which is by driving the cattle into a fevered frenzy before slaughtering it. Who would want to eat the flesh of an animal who died "with a fever?" he asks. He explains that this practice of making the cattle crazy with fear and agitation just before slaughtering it, would make the cellular membranes fill with blood and give the meat a more florid color, and add to its weight. Hmmm…practices of driving cattle to their death under a state of extreme terror, were indeed inhumane. Its just this kind of practice that Temple Grandin worked to end. But I doubt highly there was any conscious intention to terrify the animals in order to increase the perceived value of the meat. It is most likely a crime of unfeeling neglect and borne of methods that were seen as efficient. He also talks about starving animals for several days before killing them, so that there is nothing in there stomachs or intestines to deal with. He claims that this made the animals restless, feverish, and diseased.

Food Adulterations Cited by Accum and Filby

As above, Fennema provided a summary of common adulterants that were written about by both Accum and later by Filby. Which is great because it save me from having to read through Accum's long-winded chapters:

  • Annato: A coloring made from the small dark-red seeds of the tropical tree Bixa orellana, often added to cheddar cheese or butter, but used also for other purposes in Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. Annato was sometimes adulterated with turmeric, rye, barley, wheat flour, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, salt, ferric oxide (which might also contain lead and copper).
  • Black Pepper: Common adulterants or contaminates were gravel, leaves, twigs, stalks, pepper dust, linseed meal, or various ground plant materials.
  • Cayenne Pepper: Mercury sulfide (vermillion), ocher (a pigment obtained from earth containing clay and, typically, ferric oxide, for making light yellows to brown, or red), turmeric (to keep the color that was lost due to light exposure).
  • Essential Oils: Adulterated with turpentine or other oils, or alcohol.
  • Vinegar: Adulterated with sulfuric acid.
  • Lemon juice: Adulterated with sulfuric or other acids.
  • Coffee: Adulterated with roasted grains, roasted carrots, scorched beans and peas; or baked horse liver (nice!)
  • Tea: Adulterated with already used tea leaves that were dried, and leaves of other plants besides tea.
  • Milk: Adulterated mainly with water, but sometimes chalk, starch, gums, or soda were added. Preserved with borax, boric acid, salicylic acid, sodium salicylate, potassium nitrate, sodium fluoride, and benzoate. Colors added such as turmeric, annato (like used in butter), saffron*, caramel, and sulfonated dyes (other sources include ground rice, flour [i.e. 'starch'], and lead chromate used to give skimmed milk a creamy color).
  • Beer: Adulterated with the concentrated extract of poisonous berries called Cocculus indicus, called "Black extract." Gave flavor and other intoxicating and/or narcotic properties, plus made the beverage toxic.
  • Wine: Adulterated with various colorants like alum, elderberry husks, Brazil wood, burnt sugar, etc. Flavors such as bitter almonds, tincture of raisin seeds, sweet-brier, oris root, etc. Artificial aging agents such as bitartrate of potash, heptyl ether, and lead salts. Preservatives added like salicylic acid, benzoic acid, fluoborates, and lead salts. Antacids added like lime, chalk, gypsum, and lead salts.
  • Sugar: Adulterated or contaminated with sand, dust, lime, pulp (presumable from raw sugar cane), and coloring matters (undefined).
  • Butter: Adulterated with excessive salt (presumably to preserver and/or mask poor quality), water, potato flour, and curds.
  • Chocolate: Adulterated with starch, ground sea biscuits (i.e. sand dollar), tallow, brick dust, ocher, ferric oxide, and potato flour.
  • Confectionery products: Adulterated with colors that contained lead and arsenic.

Once the public was made aware of just how serious the food and beverage adulteration problem was in the early 1800s, various legislations began to take shape and this is when the study of food chemistry started to come into its own, as scientists realized that to understand how food was adulterated, you had to know what it was made of in the first place.

1. Fennema, Owen R. Food Chemistry. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1996.
2. Accum, Friedrich C. A Treatise on Adulterations of Food. 4th ed. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822. Google Books. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
3. Raghavan, Susheela. Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007.

This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.

Follow or Subscribe

More Food Science Posts

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

© 2018 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.