I encourage you to read this fascinating and wildly entertaining article called Death in the Pot . It takes a look at the early 20th century work of Harvey Washington Wiley, a “crusading chemist” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His mission was to investigate potential toxins added to the nation’s manufactured food supply to make those products appear and taste more appealing. (Seems familiar, right?!)
The article is packed with amusing and shocking anecdotes (royal tasters! poison in breakfast porridge!); here are just a few juicy quotes to whet your appetite. (Bolding is mine.)
I feel like the quote below could describe our situation today. Yes, government guidelines for labeling and ingredients exist, but there are still a lot of additives and preservatives deemed “safe” that cause my eyebrows to raise:
[Wiley] believed that everyone in the country was eating chemically treated foods, that all consumers were receiving daily apothecary doses. He suspected that the country was, in fact, suffering from a coast-to-coast epidemic of food poisoning, strictly due to commercial food production.
I enjoyed the description of the 1820 book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, too. The cover of the book blasts, “There is Death in the Pot.” (That’s the cover below, and you can read the book online or on Kindle as part of Project Gutenburg .) Yes, we complain about things like xantham gum and soy lecithin, but at least it’s not cyanide, right?!
Accum documented not only such trickery as mixing floor-sweepings into pepper, or peas and beans into coffee, but the use of poisonous compounds to improve the look of food—candies dyed red using the heavy metal lead, pickles made green with copper compounds, the common use of cyanide-rich cherry-laurel leaves to flavor custards.
And finally, this quote encourages me to rant…
Since that time, really dangerous food—the term food poisoning, even—has tended to refer to bacterial contamination issues rather than toxic-chemical contamination. Still, the public continues to worry about pesticide residues, preservatives, and food dyes—the FDA recently investigated concerns that food dyes might contribute to attention-deficit disorders.
Why, yes! We, the public, do worry about those things.
Now, if you are sufficiently incensed, go read the rest of the article. I’ve selected the ‘fist of rage’ quotes for this post, but there’s also a lot of whimsy in the writing. Have fun!