Look Before you Eat

A review of:

Bee Wilson. 2008. Swindled. From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats.  John Murray

If you’re looking for a way to lose weight, many of the hideous and frightening examples of food adulteration in this book should do the trick, especially since in modern times most of the swindling is done with packaged food.  Wilson makes it clear clear that cheating has always gone on and always will, especially in societies with laissez-faire governments who prefer promoting commerce to protecting their citizens.  In the United States and Britain, there is very little testing of chemicals added to food and most chemical additives don’t need to be listed on labels.

Food in many nations is sold on a “buyer beware” basis.  I personally can’t afford to test rats over decades with elaborate chemistry sets at home, so I try to cook from scratch with whole grains, vegetables, fruit, etc.


Bakers used to adulterate bread with alum to make it whiter, because for millennia people have wanted white bread because it’s more prestigious.  Not because it tastes better or is better for you.  Alum not only whitens, it adds to the profit margins by making loaves heavier since alum holds more water.

This probably has harmful health effects, in the 19th century a manual laborer might get 70% of their energy from bread, consuming 20 grams of alum daily from adulterated bread, which could potentially lead to health problems (M. Dunnigan. 2003. “John Snow and alum-induced rickets from adulterated London bread: an overlooked contribution to metabolic bone disease”. International Journal of EpidemiologyVolume 32, Issue 3 Pp. 340-341)

Bee lists all the ways that bread is adulterated legally now with all kinds of “unsavoury ingredients: emulsifiers; flour treatment agents; soya flour; bleach and flavourings; hardened fat to give the crumb its requisite soft and springy texture; hidden enzymes not listed on the label”.

Once upon a time, governments intervened to make sure that bread was high quality -after all, this was how most people got their calories.  French police made sure loaves were of an exact weight, used non-bitter grain, and were baked properly.

In 1266 there were 7 kinds of bread.  The rich ate the best bread from the best flour and corn, while the masses ate less-refined whole wheat bread, unless they were very poor, in which case they ate bread made from the miller’s leftovers, which may not have tasted great, but at least no fraud was committed.

Preventing fraud was done by only allowing bakers to make one kind of bread, that way, if you made only the coarsest bread, there could be no temptation for a baker of the finest bread to substitute coarser breads for more profit.

The middle ages were the golden years of bread.  Bakers had to mark their breads so that if there were any problems, they could be tracked down and held accountable.  Middlemen weren’t allowed to sell bread.  Four times a year bakers and millers were inspected.  As Miller puts it “People were harder on bakers than on other food-sellers because, while butter and cheese and wine might mean pleasure, bread meant life.  Every ounce mattered….when the basic ingredients of bread were tampered with, this signaled not just disorder but famine”.

For most of the past 6,000 years, if a baker tried to adulterate bread, the customers would know, because people knew what good bread tasted like.  This is a point Wilson makes over and over in the book – if  you don’t know what good, fresh, unadulterated food tastes like, you won’t know you’ve been duped.

The golden age of bread was from the 11th century to the 16th century, when guilds main goal was to keep the quality of their bread high. One bad baker ruined the integrity of all, so cheating wasn’t tolerated.  But the disincentives were so high this rarely happened.  It was expensive to join a guild, and it gave you great status, so it wasn’t worthwhile cheating someone of a few pennies and risk losing your bakery and standing in the community.  Guilds had strict rules to preserve their honor.   They worked hard to find the secrets to making their goods the best possible, policed themselves, and worked with government regulators to make sure all guild members were producing quality products.

When bread was “deregulated” in England in 1822, the effect was to transform baking into “one of the most depressed, overcrowded and unrenumerative trades of the day”.  Thousands of new bakers sprang up, all trying to undercut each other.  They did this by reducing the quality of the ingredients to a minimum and cheating on the weight of the bread.

In France on the other hand, Napoleon ordered the police to maintain an active watch on bakeries.  In “Six Thousand Years of Bread”, Jacob writes that Napoleon believed wars would be won or lost based on how well the soldiers ate, and he made sure his soldiers had the best bread of any army.


Unlike bread, due to Robert Parker and others who’ve popularized wine tasting, great numbers of people are aware of how good wine should taste.  Now, on average, wine is more pure and perhaps more delicious than it has ever been in the past.


To make cream or milk appear thicker and richer, rice flour, arrowroot, and other thickeners were added.


This section is quite funny.  In Wisconsin in the 1950s you could only buy white margarine so that no one could mistake it for butter, but it came with yellow food coloring so that once you were home you could make it yellow.  Rather than go to the trouble, many drove to Illinois to get yellow margarine.  Bee says imagine “crossing the state line to get a genuinely fake version of a fake product so as not to be reduced to the indignity of having to fake it for yourself”.

Margarine was invented in France by Mege-Mouries in the 1860s by mixing suet, cattle stomachs and udders with bicarbonate of soda.

Food cheating in 19th century Britain

Bee explains how candies were poisoned, tea was faked, beer watered down, and how even cheap false peppercorns were made from floor sweepings, clay, and other material.

Even in 1920, when Accum published his groundbreaking book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee …, the reaction of the government was that any kind of punishments or regulation would stifle the market.  It would just have to remain caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, even though it was impossible for consumers to know that their food was being adulterated.


This is an interesting topic to me as Malthusian times are upon us with increasing population and decreasing energy, mineral, and natural resources (i.e. topsoil, fisheries, fresh water, etc), stirred into a deadly mix by unstable weather as climate change makes it harder and harder to grow crops before drought, floods, fire, pests, hail, etc destroy them or energy shortages prevent their delivery.

In the past when famine struck, people ate animals they didn’t wish to kill, like donkeys.  Then they’d move on to poor quality grains, such as sprouted rotten grain.  Then what were considered animal food, such as acorns or vetch.  The last resort (before cannibalism) weren’t really foods, but things like tree bark, twigs, leaves, roots, and leather, which could leave peole stupefied, since some had drugging effects.   In Russia, people resorted to making bread made from straw, birch bark, buckwheat husks, pigweed and so on.

Super-size me: The Poison Squad

Long before the movie “Super-size Me” came out, there was a “poison squad” of 12 healthy young men who ate preservatives to see if they caused any harm.

Getting rid of food swindling

Bring back the guilds, where customers can be sure of high quality goods.  Industrial food corporations have the opposite goal – use cheap ingredients to undercut the prices of their rivals.  Factory food companies have the money to hire lobbyists to prevent regulation, or keep what regulations do exist from being enforced most of the time.

France has made a lot of money by ensuring their food and wine are high quality products. People travel there from all over the world for their cuisine.  Their health and lifespan are better than most nations.   I don’t doubt that historians will see one of the many reasons for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the poor health of most of its citizens, much of it due to the chemical trans-fatty nasty processed factory food so many people eat.

So even if manufacturers complain to government the economy will be ruined, it appears that honesty costs much less.

The exact names of food swindlers needs to be printed for all to see.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in this topic, Marion Nestle has many books out about food.  “Food Safety” explains why you can’t count on the FDA or USDA to do help you, mainly because they’re under-funded and have been captured by industry.

Take Action

Bee doesn’t go into this much, but I find it ironic that despite all our “progress”, since 1870, we’ve been eating the worst bread for the past 6,000 years – a giant step backwards and probably a good part of why Americans have a shorter lifespan than 50 other nations and are far less healthy as well.  It all began when roller mills were invented in 1870 to separate bran and germ from the endosperm, the latter of which is made into white flour.  Meanwhile, the bran and germ, , where most of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, essential oils, and phytochemicals are is fed to animals.  What we eat is basically starch, which converts to sugar quickly, leaving you less full, more likely to become obese and get diabetes (and heart disease, strokes, cancer, etc), plus it no longer behaves like flour – so a great many chemicals are added, some of them to keep the bread “fresh” for a month on the shelf.

Why aren’t millers and bakers in jail? How can you steal nearly all the nutrition and get away with that?

I was so outraged that the nutrition had been stolen that I started milling my own flour, and for centuries others have done the same, since the only way to know you’re getting good bread is to buy the wheat (and other grains), mill them, and bake your own bread.  This is actually quite fast and easy, paying for itself in a year, or even less if you also make your own granola and other bread products.

I don’t think people know anymore what real bread tastes like, and many brought up on factory bread might not like real bread if they had the chance to try it.  But very few have – even the expensive bakeries in the San Francisco Bay Area label breads as “whole wheat” when white flour is the main ingredient most of the time.

Find out more at  wholegrainalice.com which I’ve started to alert people to the harm white flour does and what they can do about it

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