Food adulteration of before. Care for a tea with lead?

Eating dirty


The use of unadvisable substances in food is something that soon captured the attention and interest of people and has somehow always been present in what we eat. Food adulteration is an eternal problem.

Either used to make the already esculent even more irresistible, or to wittingly falsify the original ingredients, the application of substances that alter the properties of food has had a persistence through time. From butters to teas, cheeses to wines, all these inconspicuous foodstuffs were engaged in gastronomical deceit.

Indeed, if we look back at all the types of tricks practiced a few centuries ago, it’s hard not to feel awe and concern. We need not go further than a couple of centuries to find references of substances such as lead, mercury, copper salts, clay, chalk and even bone dust being used in food [1, 2]. Lest we forget that both mercury and lead are heavy metals, which can prove fatal at certain amounts, and this fact was already known at the time. Lead was often added to teas, flour, cheese, anchovies, vegetables, wines and ground spices, and much alike copper salts, it was used to intensify the natural colour of food [3].

The post-discovery era was associated with the entry of exotic products to European territory, and acted as the incentive for the improvement and diffusion of food adulteration techniques. For instance, during the 19th century, batches of tea where 35% of the total weight corresponded to various forms of copper were apprehended in England. Cod liver oil, which was then already used as a remedy, was often found to be fully or partially composed by a mixture of train oil and iodide [4]. Candy was one of the most heavily spiked foods, containing anything from lead, arsenic or mercury based pigments, which gave candy the mesmerizing colours that flooded the imagination of kids of all ages [5]. Poor children! Diabetes would have been the least of their concerns.

However, one of the examples that better illustrates the utter dimension, ultimate acceptance and even dependance of consumers on these magic powders is the case of milk. Yellowish milk (a result of the addition of lead chromate, used to cover-up diluted milk) was so popular at the time, that people complained when they were given white milk (normal, perfectly good milk), because they though the latter was falsified [2].

Although these substances were commonly found in food, it was also not uncommon to find them present in other things, such as food wrapping paper [6]. Alas, destiny was so strong that these wretched powders just couldn’t stay away from food, one way or another.

In retrospect, we can only wonder…

What would have been the taste of that food?

Were people aware of what they had been eating?

Well, let’s just assume that these things are timeless: there are those who know, those who don’t and those who don’t care.


Why chemistry matters


With the ever growing use of such substances in food, the effects in public health soon came to view with reports of sickness and even death. Indeed, this fact was one of the main contributors to the rise of modern chemistry, which struggled to find synthetic dyes of organic origin, that over time began replace the toxic inorganic salts. Yes, over time, and time is sometimes slow. In the beginning of the 20th century, around 50% of all candy in Boston possessed pigments of inorganic origin, namely lead. Also, certain types of pasta (vermicelli) contained lead chromate, to add the lovely yellow colour we all associate with organic eggs [7].


Food is both pride and prejudice


All in all, these examples reinforce the role of food and many of the paradoxes of human behaviour. We cannot live without food, but some also can’t live without poisoning it. The somewhat odd idea that the food from the past was somehow “purer”, containing none of the rubbish additives of today, is still alive. That is a kind of food that the history struggles to find, and apart from some rural niches were what there was at table came straight from the land, it was not easy to find trustworthy food.

In light of the announcement of the World Health Organization (WHO), which refers the consumption of fresh and processed red meats as a trigger for colon cancer, it is important to analyze people’s indignation when they see their cherished traditional foods and gastronomical heritage being weakened in the light of science. What we eat and how you eat it is surely a personal feature and deeply rooted in our mentality. Here, food per se defines an important part of our personality, our fears and ambitions. Food is all this, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.



1. Anonymous, Poison Detected, Or, Frightful Truths and Alarming to the British Metropolis: In a Treatise on Bread and the Abuses Practised in Making that Food … : Shewing Also the Virtues of Good Bread and the Manner of Making it : to which is Added a Charge to the Confederacy of Bakers. 1757: Mess. Dodsley … Osborne … Corbet … Griffith … and James.
2. Hart, F.L., History of the Adulteration of Food before 1906, A. Food Drug Cosm. LJ, 1952. 7: p. 5.
3. Accum, F.C., A Treatise on Adulterations of Food. 1822: London.
4. McKone, H.T., The history of food colorants before aniline dyes. Bulletin for the history of chemistry, 1991. 10: p. 25-31.
5. Hassall, A.H., Food and its adulterations. 1855, London,: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. 2 p.
6. O’Shaughnessy, W.B., Poisoned confectionary: detection of gamboge, lead, copper, mercury, and chromate of lead, in various articles of sugar confectionary. 1831: Mills, Jowett, and Mills.
7. Wedderburn, A.J., A Popular Treatise on the Extent and Character of Food Adulterations, by Alex. J. Wedderburn. 1890: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Image credit: Miami University

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