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Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee—The Dark History of the Food Cheats

3.7 of 5 stars 3.70  ·  rating details  ·  215 ratings  ·  44 reviews
Bad food has a history. Swindled tells it. Through a fascinating mixture of cultural and scientific history, food politics, and culinary detective work, Bee Wilson uncovers the many ways swindlers have cheapened, falsified, and even poisoned our food throughout history. In the hands of people and corporations who have prized profits above the health of consumers, food and ...more
Hardcover, 370 pages
Published 2008 by John Murray Publishers
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Community Reviews

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Sesana
Food fraud has a long, still ongoing history. Bee Wilson tries to cover it, but there's only so much one can do. She ends up mostly covering the 19th and 20th centuries, which is fine by me. There's a lot to talk about here, from the early reformers who discovered that it was impossible to buy actual mustard in London to the modern version of food fraud. Wilson sees the modern tendency to overload everything with artificial flavors as a form of food fraud, and I tend to agree, after reading this ...more
Kathleen Hulser
Alum in bread, lead in double gloucester, arsenic in candy, warehouse sweepings in pepper -- these are the adulterants of yesteryear, sneaked into the product by the slimy precursors to today's scientific adulterers. Brit Bee Wilson offers a fresh historical account of the early role of chemists in disclosing the sort of substance abuse practiced for profit in laissez-faire England. Her transnational base of analysis is fascinating as an antidote to the American obsession with FDA and Dept. of A ...more
Wealhtheow
Wilson has written a comprehensive guide to adulterations, alterations, and substitutions made to our food, ranging from Romans sweetening wine with lead to GMO crops in the modern day. Fascinating! (My status updates contain the examples that most struck me.) Wilson's theory is that there will always be attempts to save money or effort by cheating or changing how food is made. Particularly, swindles like making fake eggs out of chemicals or fake tea by carefully coloring and curling tree leaves ...more
William
Not quite a four-star book, I'm afraid. I really wanted to like this more than I did, and it is hard to figure out why it was not a more enjoyable read.

The problem, I think, is the book tries to be both journalism and scholarship (it's published by a university press), and fails to effectively be either one. I'd have to know more about this topic than I do to understand fully what falls short. On the journalism side, the stories about various food crusaders are, apart from Frederick Accum, just
...more
Buffy
Ditto to what the other reviewers have to say about this book. Some of the items that stick in my mind are learning about famine foods that have been created during especially hard times though before people would resort to eating leather, tree bark and twigs. Russian peasants were particularly ingenious manufacturers of famine "breads" featuring "straw, birch and elm bark, buckwheat husks, pigweed, acorns" etc. I also learned of all the ersatz foods popularized in Germany around the First World ...more
Michael Gambill
An insightful look at the history of food adulteration and label misrepresentation. The book primarily examines the practice in Britain and the US during the 19th and 20th centuries, but takes occasional and brief side trips into the practice during earlier periods and in other parts of the world. The examination of food tampering in the Roman and Greek period was interesting as well as the few pages devoted to desperation and ersatz foods in Germany during World War I.

For me, the book tends to
...more
Sophie
I found Swindled to be far less exciting than I expected. Wilson pays particular attention to nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and England and personally, I would have found a more in-depth analysis of how that era impacted our current generation. Wilson reveals how food swindlers have cheapened, falsified, and poisoned our food throughout history. Swindled details how people and corporations have placed profits above the health of its consumers by tampering with their food and drink ...more
David
oy. i am so behind on these reviews. SO, and it really isn't fair. i get lots of good reviews from the books of others. and in fact, i feel a bit outshined by all the great books that i see others are reading.. and so many too. and such breadth.

so now it is a competition. if i can't keep up, well I will do what I can. plus now i want to read all these books, and where do people get all the time to read! and they all have jobs and lives and ....well it shouldn't be a competition at all, but my wh
...more
Michelle
This is a really fun book to read. The tone is engaging and the history is interesting, as well as some of the contemporary food politics.

However, I come away from this book with a somewhat different conclusion than the author. I agree that, while the food supplies in North America and the UK have come a long way in safety and purity, we do have issues that need addressing. To me, these issues (safe and ethical farming, GMOs, pesticide use, labeling of enzymes in food manufacturing) are importan
...more
Robyn
Birthday gift from my sweetheart.
I discovered Bee Wilson last year, when I received an ARC of her book Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat for review. That book was fascinating, well-written, and deeply researched, so this spring I found myself wondering what other works of hers were available to be added to my wishlist. I had a birthday, and Swindled thus came into my hands.

Wilson is serious about her research, and exacting in her footnotes and source citations
...more
Starbubbles
Yeah, I don't know about this book. Highly repetitive, slightly disorganized, very britishy with fairly predictable biases. If I had to read one more thing about adulterated bread, I think I was going to cry. I wish I could have gotten closer to the fake rice and baby milk. But yeah, after basically 2 months of trying to read it, I only got through a third.

I disagreed with some of Ms Bee's conclusions, such as Accum's fall from British grace was due to plagiarism and not theft of physical prope
...more
Rosa
From the title of the book I was worried that it would glorify in the gross out factor. Fortunately, it was nothing like that.

This book handles the idea of food tampering since the 1800s through now, from a scientific and historical point of view. The book discusses various methods of food tampering and focuses on how science has made it a race to keep up with dangerous swindles before they affect people. There is also a strong focus on the development of food purity laws, and how both the gove
...more
Amanda
The clever Bee Wilson does it again, with this accessible and well researched volume on the long history of food fraud. From arsenic-laced lozenges to brick-dust chilli powder, there is little that hasn't been tried over the years.
The old stories will have you recoiling in horror and the more recent ones will make you really wonder about what you are putting in your mouth. All of our modern regulations and labelling hasn't changed much in the field of food fraud. The cheats just get smarter eve
...more
Miriam
A fantastic book with a lot of great history and information. I like that Bee has to say about food and it is amazing how we are still stuggling with issues with food that mirror a century ago. Great read!
Mikki
I really enjoyed this book, and learned a lot. What a shocking history! It was well written, and the author succeeded at presenting the factual history AND making it interesting without tipping into sensationalism.
Frank
Given my training in history, my fascination with swindlers and an ongoing transformation of my prowess in the kitchen, Swindled landed in my hands at just the right time. A melange of flawed crusaders, crazy chemists and horrific cavalier attitudes, Swindled turns the pages at a rare old clip. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Andrew
excellent. just one of the great things to learn from this book: bread used to be simple and pure; wine used to be severely adulterated. that's been switched now: wine is much purer and waht we recognize as bread would confuse the hell out of folks even just a hundred years ago. she charts the change in how/ what foods used to be adulterated to the current landscape of packaged foods etc. with remarkable aplomb. the story of adulteration is a story of the repeated failure of modern politics to v ...more
Kris McCracken
A rich and diverse history of food adulteration, with a primary focus on the Anglo-American society’s post-Industrial revolution, Wilson explores how food adulteration has been endemic in modern, industrialised cities. She effectively demonstrates how modern science led the way in contaminating food for profit, exposing that contamination, driving forth new forms of adulteration and then catching the new cheats.

This is a very interesting book. Just make sure that you finished your dinner before
...more
Thom
An interesting and fairly thorough book about food cheats through history. The author comes to the conclusion that this sort of thing is inevitable, though he is hopeful individuals can be educated to protect themselves at least. I tend to think information could be used more effectively here, but agree education is important too.

This book was dry at times, and a few more in-depth or recent examples might have served better than the broad overview taken. Overall a pretty good book.
Kay
A superb and thoughtful look at food and how its been treated over the last few centuries. Some of the stories are enough to make your stomach turn, but its illuminating to see who has championed good standards for us and how business and politics can often go hand in hand when it comes to rules and regulations.

Its definitely worth the read to learn to appreciate more about what we should and shouldn't eat and will be advice i will follow!!
Bill
What a fascinating look at what people used to preserve or swindle food in the past and presently. Who would have known artificial eggs are available in China that crack open and cook like eggs. Only problem they are slightly poisonous. By the past's standards and by the author's standards just about all the food sold today is adulterated. His advice, stick to organic. The book has a decidedly British bent to it.
Gretel Newman-sugrue
Very well-written book. The chapters are clear and easy to follow, reading almost like a story to prevent the "dryness" non-fiction often carries. It gives you a great insight into both modern and historical food adulteration. Not only does it make the reader look carefully at their own diet, but it is also a good resource for food and lifestyles in days gone by.
April
I tried for three evenings in a row to read this, but I just couldn't get into it. I don't really know why; the subject matter seems just like the type of thing I would love. This is not an intelligent review because I can't give a valid reason for my dislike (bad research, uneven pacing,etc). I guess we just didn't click. Books are like people sometimes.
JulieK
Jun 13, 2013 JulieK rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: food
I skimmed parts of this, but that's not a reflection of the book's quality - just a sign of a mismatch between my level of interest in the topic vs the book's level of detail. Learned some interesting things, like that in some states margarine was required to be dyed pink. And who knew that lead was so delicious?
Scott
Excellent. is what you think it would be.
Jessica McReaderpants
Very interesting well written and researched. Wish Mary Roach had written it because this subject would have done well with more humor.On the whole very informative and thought provoking. I now look at my food, baby formula and jam very differently :)
Kassandra
A relatively quick read. Not too gross/gory as the subject matter permitted, but I was glad about that. I would have liked more on the science than the history, even if it were in an appendix. Oh well, it was still pretty good
Robert
An interesting overview of an overlooked aspect of modern and historical life. Google-searching aplenty was required for all of the historical adulterants and chemical compounds which were unfamiliar to me.
Alice
Jul 26, 2009 Alice added it
Recommended to Alice by: Leonie Brown
Read this book. More than just adulterated food, it's about the human condition and the basics of economy, and what we'll do to each other and ourselves if we think we can get away with it.
Amy Elizabeth
So happy to not live in the late 1800s in England
Or New York. Or anywhere, really.
Learned a lot about how food was contaminated to make it look or smell better. Very eye opening.
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Beatrice Dorothy "Bee" Wilson (born 7 March 1974, Oxford) is a British food writer and historian. Wilson is married to the political scientist David Runciman and lives in Cambridge. The daughter of A.N. Wilson and the Shakespearean scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones, her sister is Emily Wilson, a Classicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
More about Bee Wilson...
Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us Sandwich: A Global History Beautiful and Hateful Buzz Books 2012

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