Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Adulteration of Food

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 1
Adulteration of Food

by Thomas O'Conor Sloane


(Lat. adulterare, to pollute, to adulterate).

This act is defined as the addition of any non-condimental substance to a food, such substance not constituting a portion of the food. Even this carefully-worded definition is not perfect. Some kinds of salt provisions have so much salt added that some of it has to be removed by soaking, to render the food edible, yet this does not constitute adulteration. Adulteration of food has long been practiced. It is mentioned in the case of bread by Pliny, who also says that difficulty was experienced in Rome in procuring pure wines. Athens had its public inspector of wines. England and France early passed laws to guard against the adulteration of bread, and as far back as the days of Edward the Confessor public punishment was provided for the brewers of bad ale. The legal status of adulteration is largely a matter of statute, varying with each governmental body which attacks the subject. Food is declared adulterated if there is added to it a substance which depreciates or injuriously affects it; if cheaper or inferior substances are substituted wholly or in part for it; if any valuable or necessary constituent has been wholly or in part abstracted; if it is an imitation; if it is colored or otherwise treated, to improve its appearance; if it contains any added substance injurious to health. These are examples of statutory provisions. Political considerations, such as the desire to protect the food-producers of a country, may affect legislation. Thus adulteration may be so defined as to include foreign products, which otherwise might be treated as unobjectionable. Food-preservatives have a very extensive use, which often constitutes adulteration. Salt is the classic preservative, but is also a condiment, and is seldom classed as an adulterant. Salicylic, benzoic, and boric acids, and their sodium salts, formaldehyde, ammonium fluoride, sulphurous acid and its salts are among the principal preservatives. Many of these appear to be innocuous, but there is danger that the continued use of food preserved by their agency may be injurious. Extensive experiments on this subject have been performed by the United States Bureau of Chemistry and by the German Imperial Board of Health, among others. Some preservatives have been conclusively shown to be injurious when used for long periods, although their occasional use may be attended with no bad effect. Boric acid is pretty definitely Condemned, after experiments on living subjects. Salicylic, sulphurous, and benzoic acids are indicated as injurious. The direct indictment against preservatives is not very strong. The principal point is that while the amount of preservative in a sample of food might be innocuous, the constant absorption of a preserving chemical by the system may have bad effects. Preservatives are often sold for household use, as for the preparation of "cold process" preserves. If really made without heat, the tendency is, on the housekeeper's part, to use a proportion of the chemical larger than that employed by the manufacturer, thus increasing any bad effect attributable to them. Coloring matters are much used. Coal-tar colors are employed a great deal, and have received legal recognition in Europe. In the United States the tendency is rather to favor vegetable colors. Pickles and canned vegetables are sometimes colored green with copper salts; butter is made more yellow by anatta; turmeric is used in mustard and some cereal preparations. Apples are the basis for many jellies, which are colored so as to simulate finer ones. This is an instance of the use of coloring matter fraudulently, to imitate a more expensive article. But in confectionery dangerous colors, such as chrome yellow, Prussian blue, copper and arsenic-compounds are employed. Yellow and orange-colored candy is to be suspected. Fruit syrups, and wines, and tomato catsup are often artificially colored. Canned peas are especially to be suspected; often the fact that they are colored is stated on the label. Artificial flavouring-compounds are employed in the concoction of fruit syrups, especially those used for soda water. The latter are often altogether artificial. Among this class are: pear essence (amylic and ethylic acetates); banana essence (a mixture of amyl acetate and ethyl butyrate), and others. Milk is adulterated with water, and indirectly by removing the cream. It is also a favorite subject for preservatives. The latter are condemned partly because they render extreme cleanliness less necessary, for milk ordinarily exacts a high degree of purity in its surroundings. The addition of water may introduce disease germs. Cream is. adulterated with gelatin, and formaldehyde is employed as a preservative for it. Butter is adulterated to an enormous extent with oleomargarine, a product of beef fat. It is a lawful product, but it is required by many enactments that its presence in butter be medicated on the package. Lard is another adulterant of butter. Cheese is made from skim-milk some times, and cottonseed oil and other cheap fats are substituted for the cream. There are two principal sugar substitutes. One is glucose, with which sugar products are adulterated. It has less than two-thirds the sweetening power of sugar. The other is saccharine. This is the sweetest substance known; it is 230 times sweeter than sugar. It may be regarded as practically harmless. Sugar itself is generally pure. Meat is not much adulterated. It is generally only open to adulteration with preservatives, and cold storage causes these to be little used. It is sometimes dusted over with a preservative while in the piece, and sausages and similar products are often treated with preservatives and coloring matter. Boric acid and borax are typical preservatives, and sulphurous acid salts are used to restore a fresh appearance to stale meat. Starch is added to sausages. It is claimed that it prevents them from shrinking in cooking. Flour is adulterated by the addition of lower-grade meals, such as rye flour, corn meal, 0r potato starch; their use is not very common. Alum is employed to disguise the presence of damaged flour, and to prevent decomposition. Alum is a still more frequent adulterant of bread; it is considered injurious to the animal system. Coffee is much adulterated, when sold ground. The root of chicory is a common adulterant, and even this has been supplanted by ocher and cheaper substances such as peas, beans, wheat, ground up after roasting. Attempts Have been made to produce a counterfeit of the berry, an imitation being moulded out of some paste, but this has made no inroads. If coffee is bought unground, it will generally be pure, although the country of its origin may not be truthfully stated. Tea is generally pure, except that it may be of much lower grade than stated. Spent leaves are sometimes used, and the appearance is sometimes improved by "facing". This is the agitation with soapstone, Prussian blue, etc.

For discussion of the morality of adulteration of food see INJUSTICE; DECEPTION.

HASSELL, Food: its Adulteration and the Methods for their Detection (London, 1876); BATTERSHALL, Food Adulteration and its Detection (New York, 1887); BLYTH, Foods, their Composition and Analysis (London, 1896); CHAPIN, Municipal Sanitation in the United States (Providence, R.I., 1901); LEACH, Food Inspection and Analysis (New York, 1904); SONBEIRAU, Nouveau dictionnaire des falsifications et des alterations (Paris, 1874); Canadian Reports on Adulteration of Food (Ottawa, 1876 et seq.); Report of the Municipal Laboratory (Paris, France); Report of the National Academy of Science and of the Normal Board of Health (Washington, D.C.); Ann. Reports of the Board of Health of Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York; Reports and Bulletins of Bureau of Chemistry; U.S. Department of Agriculture on Food Adulteration, especially Bulletin No. 100.

THOMAS O'CONOR SLOANE