Food and Drink Adulteration in the 1700 and 1800s

Friedrich Christian Accum, a German chemist, arrived in London in 1793. He soon discovered that food and drink adulteration were occurring on a regular basis in England and that it caused deleterious and even fatal effects to those who consumed such items. In 1820, he published a treatise on adulteration in food and drink and noted that “there is none more reprehensible, and at the same time more prevalent, than the sophistication of the various articles of food.”[1] Accum also claimed that adulteration had become such an “unprincipled and nefarious practice,”[2] that it touched “almost every commodity which can be classed among either the necessaries or the luxuries of life … in every part of the United Kingdom.”[3]

Food and Drink Adulteration: Friedrich Christian Accum, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Friedrich Christian Accum. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among the items affected by adulteration were drinks (beer, tea, coffee, spirits, and wine), bread, cheese, pickled foods, and sweet treats. In fact, by the early 1800s, the practice of adulteration had become so common, nineteenth century people developed a taste for fraudulent substances in their food and drink and often did not realize anything was wrong with what they were ingesting until it was too late.

Adulteration also happened to other liquors and beverages consumed. For instance, although statutes prohibited brewers from adding anything more than malt and hops to beer, nefarious brewers were not deterred. They regularly added deleterious or illegal substances, such as molasses, brown sugar, capsicum, licorice root, ginger, quassia, or copperas. One gentleman, a Mr. Jackson, decided to train brewers how to brew beer without any malt or hops because he could make a fortune selling unlawful ingredients. However, he was somewhat thwarted after an Act of Parliament was instituted and a stiff fine enacted to prevent supplying such ingredients to brewers. Tea and coffee were also both counterfeited with imitation tea leaves often substituted for real ones and coffee beans substituted for peas and pigeon beans (also a type of pea) or by various other vegetable sources.

Spirituous liquors, such as brandy, rum, and gin, were also substituted with “a weaker liquor for a stronger one.”[4] As for wines, “many thousand pipes of spoiled cyder [were] … brought … from the country, for the purpose of being converted into factitious Port wine.”[5] In addition, in some cases, preparations of lead or adulterated vinegars were introduced into wine.

Liquor and other drinks were not the only items nineteenth century consumers found altered or adulterated. Spurious items were added to bread frequently. Sometimes chalk or bone meal were used, but alum (aluminum potassium phosphate) was the preferred item for adulteration because it improved the firmness and the look of bread. One person pointed out:

“To produce the degree of whiteness rendered indispensable by the caprice of the consumers in London, it [was] necessary … that the dough should be bleached; and no substance [for] … this purpose [was] better than alum.”[6]

Loaf of bread. Courtesy of Deluxe Vectors.

At the time, London bakers added “about 1½ ounces of alum per 4 lb loaf,”[7] and with the amount of bread Londoners ate daily, it quickly added up to the maximum daily intake that an adult should consume. Unfortunately, many children in London and Southern England primarily subsisted on adulterated bread. That is why many children experienced debilitating diseases, such as rickets, “hypophosphataemia [abnormally low levels of phosphate in the blood], hypercalciuria [excessive urinary calcium excretion] with calcium resorption from bone, … general malaise, debility, anorexia, and muscle weakness.”[8]

Adulteration also affected cheese. Accum maintained that Gloucester cheese was contaminated with red lead buried in annotto, a carotenoid-based yellow to orange food coloring. This adulteration to Gloucester cheese began as early as the sixteenth century because supposedly the more orange the hue, the better the quality of the cheese. However, once the cheese was adulterated with red lead, people reported “distressing … indiscribable [sic] pain in the region of the abdomen and of the stomach, accompanied with a feeling of tension, which occasioned much restlessness, anxiety, and repugnance to food.”[9]

There was also the case where a kitten was fed some adulterated Gloucester cheese. It became “violently sick.” An investigation was undertaken to discover the source of the adulteration, and it was soon traced to the farmer who manufactured the cheese:

“He declared that he had bought the anotto [sic] of a mercantile traveller, who … supplied him and his neighbours for years … On subsequent inquiries, through a circuitous channel … it was found that as the supplies of anotto [sic] had been defective and of inferior quality.”[10]

Pickled vegetables did not escape adulteration either. French beans, samphires, and cucumbers, which were often green in color, could obtain an even finer and livelier green color if “intentionally coloured by means of copper.”[11] Fatal consequences were often the result of using copper to achieve a green coloring. For instance, one young lady consumed a copper-adulterated samphire pickle.

“[She] soon complained of pain in the stomach; and, in five days, vomiting commenced, which was incessant for two days. After this her stomach became prodigiously distended, and in nine days after eating the pickle, death relieved her from her suffering.”[12]

Food and Drink Adulteration

Pickled vegetables. Author’s collection.

Part of the problem and the reason for food and drink adulteration was that cookbooks often provided recipes advising cooks to impart a brilliant green color in the pickled foods by boiling them with a halfpence and then allow them to stand for 24 hours in copper or brass pans. Sometimes they suggested boiling vinegar in a copper pot and then pouring the mixture over the pickles. However, copper was not the only problem with pickled foods, as even vinegar was adulterated. Accum found it was particularly difficult to detect adulteration in vinegar but noted that in many cases sulphuric acid was added to vinegar “to give it more acidity.”[13]

Of all the food items adulterated, likely the most reprehensible was sugary confections, “especially those sweetmeats of inferior quality.”[14] This was particularly sad and upsetting as sugary and sweet items greatly appealed to children. The sugar used in the treats often contained “Cornish clay (a species of very white pipe-clay).”[15] Other treats such as red sugar drops were frequently colored with inferior vermilion that had been adulterated with red lead, and other sweetmeats were also “rendered poisonous by being coloured with preparations of copper.”[16]

Foreign and imported confections and sweets did not escape adulteration either. They were laced with poison and adulterated with a variety of ingredients, as were custards, puddings, and other such delicacies. Additionally, the leaves of the cherry laurel, which is poisonous, was once used in a custard to impart a nutty taste. The custard was then served to unsuspecting children at a boarding school. “Four of the poor innocents were taken severely ill,”[17] and two of the children remained in a profound sleep from which they could not be roused for at least nine hours, while the other two suffered severe stomach pains. Fortunately, however, all of the children fully recovered within three days.

Food and Drink Adulteration

Leaves of the cherry laurel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Accum may have got the ball rolling against food and drink adulteration, he was not the only person interested in the subject. John Post became an ardent campaigner against adulteration after working as a grocery boy and learning that dangerous additives were put in food. Dr. Arthur Hill Hassall also became a well-known advocated against the adulteration of foodstuffs and claimed in 1851, a year after Madame Tussaud died, that “food and drugs sold in London … show[ed] that adulteration prevailed to an extraordinary extent.”[18] Henry Letheby was another person interested in food adulteration, as was English surgeon Thomas Wakley, who founded in 1823 a peer-reviewed medical journal known as the Lancet.

Thomas Wakley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As more and more distinguished men joined the fight against food and drink adulteration, the House of Commons passed various acts. These included the Adulteration Food Act in 1860, the Adulteration Act of 8172, the Sale of Food and Drugs Act in 1875, and the Sale of Food and Drugs Act Amendment Act in 1879. Additionally, with the advent of scientific advances, such as the microscope, it could be clearly determined whether or not a food or drink was altered, which made the passage of such acts enforceable and allowed the average citizen to know whether or not the food and drinks they consumed were safe.


  • [1] Accum, Friedrich Christian A., A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, 1820, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 266.
  • [5] Ibid. p. 98.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 131.
  • [7] Dunningan, M., “Commentary: John Snow and alum-induced rickets from adulterated London bread: an overlooked contribution to metabolic bone disease, “on the Internal Journal of Epidemiology
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Accum, Friedrich Christian A., p. 292.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 295.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 306.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 307.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 311.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 315.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 316.
  • [17] Ibid., p. 325.
  • [18] Herbert, Thomas, The Law on Adulteration, 1884, p. 11.

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