Book Review: Swindled

Myths and beliefs about food and drink vary across cultures and time. Yet, there is something persistent about fears of food contamination. And those fears aren’t unwarranted, as laid out by Bee Wilson‘s excellent book, Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.

The book has an unfortunate tendency to denigrate the role and science of chemistry in a way that weakens some of its conclusions, but overall I recommend it as a breezy and informative read about food adulteration mainly in western Europe and the United States. The book raises a question central to most human societies: What does pure and wholesome food look like?

To answer this, Wilson raises the question of what an adulterant is, and when it becomes an ingredient as opposed to a trick played on the consumer. She narrows it down to two categories: poisoning and cheating. As straightforward as it seems, there are peripheries where the lines blur. After all, people pay good money for authentic fugu sashimi, a Japanese delicacy where the flesh of the pufferfish is carefully prepared and served, with at least some of the poisonous tetrodotoxin contributing to the overall experience. It’s indisputable that the epicurean in this case is being (slightly) poisoned, but at least they’re not being conned. Other times it seems that we ask to be convinced our food is more wholesome than it is, as is the case with products like “raw sugar” which is really just turbinado sugar, an old method of sugar preparation that retains some of the impurities, none of which cancel or appreciably reduce the number of calories or glycemic index of the sugar you’re consuming. Though some find the large crystal size and slight malty flavor appealing, the additional minerals aren’t particularly hard to come by in an American diet.  But what Wilson takes highest issue with, and rightly so, is when the person eating is being deceived, as in the tragic Chinese fake milk scandal in 2008.

She starts her investigation in Great Britain during the 1800s. Here, we find our first hero, Friedrich Accum, an accomplished German chemist who found himself on a mission to prove to the English that they didn’t eat very well, and that their food was often faked or poisonous. He wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons in 1820. In it, he not only informed the public on how they might go about verifying whether they’d been cheated, but went so far as to name names, listing grocers and vendors who’d been prosecuted and convicted for providing impure ingredients. His story, however, doesn’t end happily. His credibility in Britain would be destroyed in an incident where he was caught tearing a page out of a library book, leading him to flee back to Germany. Note to self: Don’t mess with British librarians.


Frontispiece of Accum’s Book. (Public domain image obtained from the Wellcome Trust)

Despite the efforts of Accum and others, the state of food safety and preparation in urban areas in the 1800s was dismal. People had lost any sense of what food was supposed to look like or smell like. Even as people in the modern era deride “fake” food, we have access to recipes and photographs at the touch of a button, and powerful governments that at least theoretically care about setting minimum standards for food quality. Often what we call “fake” is really just mass-produced. When you buy the cheapest possible coffee in the store, labelled “100% coffee” at least you can be sure that you’re getting A) Ground up beans from B) A plant in the Coffea genus. It may be an inferior species, grown in substandard soil, but at least it’s coffee. People in 1800s Britain might be getting chicory instead, or toasted grains made up to look like coffee. But at least those substitutes wouldn’t kill you.

In one story, Accum found a woman who was surprised that the green tea she purchased turned deep blue when she added ammonia to it. She wasn’t trying to test for anything; at the time, ammonia was used medicinally, though no doctor would recommend it now. The liquid turned blue because people would fake tea by drying sloe leaves (an unrelated plant) and simulate the color of green tea by adding copper carbonate, which has a light green color. It is also extremely toxic. When the woman added ammonia, she inadvertently made a copper-ammonia-water ion complex pictured below, which is deep blue. She took her tea to Accum who precipitated the copper and showed it to her, though we never find out what happened to the vendor who sold the tea.


Ball-and-Stick Model of Tetraamminediaquacopper(II) cation. Public domain image by Ben Mills and Jynto.

Stories like this abound, but perhaps more interesting were the systemic issues that seemed to come up again and again in history. It always seemed that there was a tension between the bakers, grocers, and vintners and the state. These would give way to larger conflicts with industrialized food manufacturers. Especially in turn-of-the-century Britain and the United States, the argument seemed to be that the consumer should choose their poisoners, but after any number of high profile scandals, such as that caused by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in the United States, governments found they were increasingly pushed to regulate food quality standards more strictly.

Maybe the most interesting effort in getting the US government to regulate food safety came from Harvey Washington Wiley. Wiley, a Hoosier physician, would end up conducting a series of tests on the effects of new preservatives that were being used in food. Somewhat notoriously, he did this by using federal founds to found what would come to be known as the Poison Squad.

The Poison Squad was one of those unique oddities of its time that we can hardly imagine happening today. One part science and two parts publicity stunt, Wiley would assemble a team of young, healthy men and feed them preservatives in increasingly larger amounts and they would report any symptoms that they experienced. Preservatives are one of those issues that have largely faded from public consciousness and even fad labeling. This is largely because the legacy of truly harmful preservatives in food like formaldehyde has faded from memory. Originally called hygienic table studies, the media quickly came up with the much catchier and longer-lived name of “The Poison Squad.” This attention from the national press directly contributed to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which laid the groundwork for the modern Food and Drug Administration in the United States.

The hardest thing about reviewing this book is that the subject is so vast, that there is the temptation to wish it covered more and that it accomplished more. But when I examined her sources, I found that there was a great deal she didn’t include because she couldn’t possibly have the time. So I have to give her credit for being such a careful curator, keeping the book narrowly focused and not indulging too much in our desire for tales of despotic food inspectors, lowlife grocers, and irascible scientists. The style is straightforward, if opinionated at times, but her sketches of the various historical characters are so compelling that we can’t help but feel a thrill when a food adulterer is caught out, or anger when a government fails to act on of the many heroes’ discoveries of poison and chicanery in the local market stalls.

Perhaps one of the few failings of this book is a failure to learn from the highly artificial ways that humans divide the food world into “wholesome” and “unwholesome.” The ethnographer, Stephen Mintz observed in his book, Sweetness and Power that people have odd and highly arbitrary ideas of what makes food a meal, and noted that globally we will eat almost anything not acutely toxic. Yet Wilson, a food writer by profession, seems to reinforce some Platonic ideal of wholesomeness. She writes as part of her conclusion,

We would need to be taught what medieval eaters knew instinctively: what bread tastes like when it is made from nothing but flour, water, salt, and leavening; what ham tastes like when it hasn’t been injected with excess water; how Basmati rice smells and how it differs from long-grain rice. Children in schools should be taught how vegetables are grown–without pesticides– and how they can be cooked–without additives…

The problem is that even cheap supermarket Wonderbread is largely made of flour, water, salt, and leavening, with other ingredients added to preserve the loaf, and to enrich its vitamin content. I suppose I don’t see the con here. What’s the adulterant? Who is being swindled, and how? She talks about the cheap loaves of bread that bakers were once mandated to bake as food for the poor and this bread is no different: wholesome, and because it keeps well and can be mass-produced, cheap. She talks about the cheap loaves of bread that baker’s were mandated to once bake as food for the poor and this bread is no different in many ways. It keeps well and can be mass-produced cheaply, and gives nutrition to the people eating it. The ingredients are listed plainly. No one is going to suffer appreciably from eating it day after day, week after week, as part of a balanced diet. Blandness is regrettable, but not deceptive. And to her point above, about cooking with additives—how does one cook without additives?

Every spice and salt you add is an additive. Is brioche a lesser bread because it’s made with egg? Is a barbecued brisket malformed by the addition of the heady mix of compounds in smoke? If make my own liquid smoke on a grill with wood chips and a bundt pan and season my food with it, is it an additive? I doubt Wilson would say so, but I wonder what she would think of a burger chain adding liquid smoke to their griddle cooked burgers. Her contemplation of what constitutes an additive as opposed to be ingredient seems artificial.

Wilson is often arguing to engage a person’s innate sense of the world. She’s appealing to a sort chemical intuition we have about the world, rather than actual information. Take the passage,

There is another kind of deception going on too–a kind of collective self-deception. Fortification can disguise the fundamental inadequacies of the diet eaten by the general population. By bolstering the intake of certain select vitamins , fortification can give the impression that, in large industrial societies, the food of the poor or uneducated is not so much worse than the food of the rich or educated. This is an illusion. On grounds of both taste and nutrition , there is a great difference between eating a whole, tart, juicy orange, rich in fibre as well as natural flavour, and eating [sic] an orange-flavour drink fortified with vitamin C; or between eating a slice of real, malty wholegrain bread, naturally rich in B vitamins, and eating an industrially produced square of fortified white “bread.”

This statement is constructed in a way that’s hard to disagree with, except that the comparisons are false. Poorer consumers are not drinking orange flavored drink to replace oranges. Instead they are eating conventionally grown oranges as opposed to organic oranges (which are nutritionally identical), or they’re not eating a well-balanced diet for a variety of reasons and aren’t eating enough fruit to begin with. She raises the issue of widespread folic acid masking B12 deficiency, but she glosses over the complexities of what happens when public health initiatives have trade-offs. Meanwhile, nutritional deficiencies are not being “hidden,” but alleviated. CDC data [PDF] show a small minority of Americans with nutritional deficiencies, with some complex factors accounting for why those minorities exist.  For instance, vitamin D is often obtained from exposure to sunlight. People with darker skin need more sunlight to synthesize vitamin D, and much of the US receives less sunlight during the year than would be ideal for these groups, which means the vitamin D from diet becomes a more important factor than it otherwise would be.

As for bread, I do not dispute the difference in taste between Wonderbread and a fine loaf of ciabatta, or a yeasty samoon, or buttered Irish soda bread. But on nutrition grounds, I strongly doubt that there is a real difference between a home-baked whole grain bread and a square store-bought loaf. If instead of comparing oranges to orange drink we compare apples to apples and whole grain to whole grain, the differences have a tendency to disappear.

But since we are on the topic of bread, we need to discuss something that Wilson does which I call the “uncertainty sandwich.” I don’t want to spend much more time impugning a book that I think is good, and that I think you should read, but watch for this structure:

  • A statement that a particular food or additive may be bad for you.
  • An admission there is no scientific evidence it is bad for you.
  • A remark on why that evidence does not change her mind.

I don’t think Wilson is being dishonest with this, but I do think it’s worth noting that the actual scientific evidence is always couched this way when Wilson wants to make a point. You’ll notice it once you’re aware of it, and a particularly interesting example is in the discussion around aspartame.

I don’t think she ever answers the question of what a “pure” food looks like to my satisfaction, but I don’t think her suggestions are outlandish or unreasonable: that we all become more intimate and familiar with the preparation of our food and its production. As for my answer to the question, I think the question is wrong. I think that once you go beyond deception, and start to discuss ingredients in complex foods, the concept of pure food is nonsensical. Olive oil, coffee, flour, and sugar: These things can be pure. But once you start to build a cuisine, all bets are off.

Fermentation processes produce an almost mystical range of compounds that we don’t directly control, so there is nothing pure about cheese, or wine, or even bread. It’s not like every one of these fermentation compounds has been tested or proven safe, yet it is indisputable that the esters and carboxylates invented by the yeasts we use are just as much a flavoring as anything we might add to bread. But to the mind, a homemade loaf of bread is still “purer” and more “clean” than a supermarket English muffin, where every ingredient is known and controlled carefully. We are socially conditioned to feel certain ways about food, and that’s okay, but we don’t need to justify it with flawed reasoning and vague ideas of “purity.” The heart may want what the heart wants, but the stomach is in fact less discriminating.

Food isn’t polluted by being subjectively inferior to other food, it’s simply different. Human beings are historically remarkably diverse in what we call food and what we desire from it. Purity here, becomes more of a psychological term than a technological one, and I think that Wilson could have written an even more compelling end to an already compelling book if she could have seen her way to that fact.

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