First, I must confess that it took me 1.5 years to finish this book. One of the downfalls to being a student, is the sudden loss of time and interest in reading during my spare time. In addition, the start of this book is a little slow. Anyways, it should never have taken me this long to get through it, because after the slow first half, this book becomes fascinating (and horrifying) for anyone that eats. Here is a quick introduction before I dive into my thoughts on the book:
Swindled: The Dark history of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee is from Bee Wilson who has also written four other books on food related topics such as the history of the sandwich, a history of how we cook and eat, and how we learn to eat. Published in 2008, Swindled is almost 10 years old, however the information is still informative in today's food industry.
As the title suggests, this book discusses the food fraud experienced mainly in Europe (she is British) and North America. The book is written in chronological order, so the first half (although interesting) is more removed from how we eat and live today. That being said, the second half of the book deals with more recent food frauds in history and this is where the reader realizes how little has changed with fraud in our food industry. The methods may have changed, and the food items being manipulated may be different, but essentially we are still struggling to control food fraud.
According to the author, the history of food adulteration can be divided into two stages; before 1820 and after 1820, essentially due to the influence of Frederick Accum who wrote a book titled A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons in the same year. It was this book that opened people’s eyes to the fraud that could be found in the food sold in modern industrial cities.
Reading Swindled makes you wonder if anything was safe to be eaten before 1820. Turns out, not much was, especially in the United Kingdom. It seems that the more we relied on others to grow and make the food we eat, the less safe the food became. Food fraud was everywhere in United Kingdom, sometimes in plain sight. One of the more common forms of food fraud was with bread and the social value in eating only white bread.White bread was seen as superior to dark bread (oh how the times have changed) and everyone, even those who could not afford it, wanted their bread white. Due to how difficult it was to make real white bread, most of the white bread sold was usually bleached with chemical alum.
The problem, it seems, is that in England people were very class conscience and only the upper class could afford white bread, whereas the working class ate brown bread. In order to ‘rise in the ranks’ so to speak, people became more concerned with how food looked like than how it tasted. This seems crazy to us, but we really haven't progressed far from this. Today, ingredients are added to food to make it last longer, look better, or taste sweeter, usually at the cost of our health.
The problem with food fraud is that the longer our food is manipulated over time, the more we become accustomed to it. If you grow up eating a food that is heavily manipulated to taste or look a certain way, then the real version of that food item may not seem appealing to you.Overall, this book is a fascinating view of how removed we can get from good, quality food that is safe for consumption! The less we grow and make the food we eat, the more we rely on others to provide our food. With this comes a loss in control of what is put into the food. Even if we are aware of what is put in our food, we often forget (or never even learn) how a food item should be made or taste.
Bread is a perfect example brought up in the book. Although our bread is not bleached with alum anymore, the white bread sold in most grocery stores is made to last WEEKS without getting moldy. Although whole wheat bread has received more attention for its health benefits, many still prefer soft, white bread with a thin crust. The fact that most of us don't question how the bread can last so long without going bad AND that a lot of people prefer this type over a more authentic whole wheat bread, is the very problem humans face with the food industry. Food fraud will remain a serious issue for as long as we remain disconnected from real food: how it is grown, made, and stored.
Bee Wilson doesn't finish this book leaving you in despair and terrified of eating. Far from it. She doesn't want to scare us from everything we find in a grocery store. The point she wants to make is that we as consumers, need to learn how to tell when a food item has been manipulated. To do this, one should get closer to the food one buys. The more we understand the sources of the food we eat, and how they are grown and made, the less likely we can be tricked by food fraud.
I highly recommend this book to everyone because eating is a part of our daily lives that we need to survive. We need to understand the history in food fraud and how it is still occurring today. Using the knowledge found in the book, along with tips on how to fight food fraud, we can actively strive to eat healthy, safe food.