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Early adulteration sowed mistrust in the food production system that endures today

Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Benjamin R. Cohen
University of Chicago Press
332 pp.
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In 15th-century Europe, the record suggests, authorities took food fakery very seriously. A Nuremberg merchant caught adulterating the spice saffron was burned at the stake, and his confederate was buried alive. Of course, the merchant and his colleague should have been aware of the prohibitions against food tampering by then; they had been in place for centuries. The famed Greek philosopher Plato inscribed rules against adulteration in his book The Laws, published in the 4th century BCE.

As Benjamin R. Cohen notes in his thoughtful book Pure Adulteration, it is difficult to find a time or a place in history that lacks purveyors of food and drink attempting to cheat their unsuspecting customers. Cohen, a science historian and associate professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, brings up the age-old problem of adulteration as essential context for his more recent case study of the underlying issues.

As his book’s subtitle—“Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food”—suggests, Cohen’s focus is on the pure food movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His story centers on the scandals and conflicts in the United States during this period that eventually led to the establishment of the federal Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Organizing the book around that battlefield moment allows him to ask a range of provocative and intriguing questions about U.S. food systems. What, for example, does this fight for food purity tell us about the changing nature of the country; its shifting culture, commerce, and politics; and its emerging scientific power?

This was a moment, Cohen points out, in which industry was on the rise, farming was shifting to a bigger business model, and urbanization was starting to outpace rural growth. It was also a moment in which the ability to create an entirely artificial product began to blur our definitions of what constitutes “real food.” In response to those pressures, newly empowered researchers led “an effort to take command of patrolling the border between pure and adulterated.” To explore that territory, Cohen uses case studies of high-profile examples of adulteration and fakery in the 19th century, including butter, olive oil, lard, and glucose (which was then the common name for products such as corn syrup).

In a chapter titled “Margarine in a Dairy World,” Cohen looks at the late-19th-century rise of artificial butter, also known as oleomargarine. At that point, margarine was not the vegetable oil product we know today. It started out as an amalgam of meat fat and other by-products, processed into a creamy spread and dyed yellow to mimic traditional butter. Although manufacturers described it as another natural animal product—sometimes referring to it as “butterine”—critics saw it as industrial-scientific artifice. “Oleomargarine was controversial because its identity was unclear, its origins were murky, and it frustrated stable norms of agricultural activity,” Cohen writes.

By contrast, adulterated olive oil—usually mixed with much cheaper cottonseed oil—took advantage of changes in global agricultural practices. Cotton crops were expanding around the world, and growers embraced new uses for the plants’ parts and seeds. The cottonseed oil industry, which eventually fostered such lard substitutes as Crisco (shorthand for crystallized cottonseed oil), raised fewer hackles than did the margarine debate, except in the obvious matters of substitution and false advertising.

The starchy sugars of corn and other plants—as opposed to traditional sweeteners such as cane sugar or maple syrup—also came under close scrutiny during this period. Analytical chemists increasingly identified the so-called honeys and syrups of the time as artfully labeled and carefully dyed glucose. In the late 19th century, manufacturers were not required to put ingredient labels on products, so consumers were easily kept in the dark about foods’ true composition.

All of this led to a sense, fostered by the research community, that only chemists themselves could counter such chemical chicanery. Cohen devotes the last two chapters of his book to the rise of scientific analysts, notably Harvey Washington Wiley, a U.S. Department of Agriculture chemist who helped pioneer chemical analysis of the food supply and who was a leader in the fight for food safety standards, which culminated in the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Although pure food advocates helped establish modern consumer protection in the United States, Cohen argues that their often-bruising political fight also helped establish a mistrust of the food production system that endures today. Adulteration of olive oil and other products has been dramatically reduced but has not disappeared. And in the end, he concludes, the most pertinent question, then as now, may be whom—if anyone—we trust to “patrol that safety-danger border.”

About the author

The reviewer is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA, and the author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Penguin Press, 2018).