Food Lies

By Bee Wilson

Bee Wilson writes the ‘Kitchen Thinker’ column in Stella magazine (The Sunday Telegraph). She is the author of Swindled: the Dark History of the Food Cheats. Her most recent book was Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. She is now working on a book on the psychology of eating.

Food lies used to be big and blatant. As in: ‘Of course, Madame, this coffee is nothing but the genuine article’, when really it was chicory mixed with burnt beans, acorns, sugar and sawdust.

In 1820, when Frederick Accum, a German chemist, analysed the foods for sale on the streets of London, he found it difficult to mention a ‘single article of food which is not to be met with in an adulterated state’. The lies were often audacious, even brilliant, if you could forget the questionable morals.  Fake peppercorns were manufactured from the residue of linseed oil rolled into spheres mixed with clay and cayenne pepper, to give a little ‘bite’. Another clever one was fake tea leaves made from random leaves picked from the hedgerows, boiled and dried and painted green or black depending on whether the customer wanted green or black tea. Such industry! It was almost like art fraud.

Today, the lie is often much harder to pinpoint, because we don’t know what is being counterfeited.   When we look at junk food, the problem is not that it is fake, but that there is no real version to compare it to.   We cannot quite put our finger on the nature of the lie.  The Victorians knew that that when cream was watered down and padded with starch, it was fraudulent.  Yet when shoppers today buy diet yoghurts that are defatted and then thickened up with fillers, they feel no moral indignation.

As Michael Pollan lamented in his In Defence of Food, our supermarkets are now filled with ‘foodlike substances’, so processed they hardly count as food at all.  It sometimes feels like a murky system in which we are all complicit.  To whom should we complain about these artificial concoctions? Who would give us redress?

When the ‘horsegate’ scandal broke in 2013 – the discovery of undeclared horse meat in thousands of samples of British beef – it unleashed many emotions.   One of them was a sort of relief. Here was a food scandal where the villainy was clear.  We were free, like Accum in 1820, to feel undiluted outrage, at the falsehoods being exposed.