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

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  335 Ratings  ·  56 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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Petra X
There is nothing new here. So many quotes that I've heard before. This just seems to be recycled material told in an entertaining way. And that's about it, more entertainment than information. But it made me think....

Are we any less swindled now? Isn't counterfeit anything the name of the game? What relationship do Twinkies bear to sponge cake filled with cream other than how they look? How do we know the long term effects of all the non-food and heavily modified food items they contain?

Kraft E
Jun 05, 2012 Sesana rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction, food
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
Jul 05, 2013 Wealhtheow rated it really liked it
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
It would appear that in addition to just plain old greed, food swindlers require three things: Laissez Faire attitudes toward regulation; a poverty stricken populace that has forgotten what real food tastes like and industrialization and urbanization which leads to a long supply line making blame hard to assign (wars don't hurt either forcing rationing and the invention of "ersatz" or fake foods).

Bee Wilson's case study focuses on London and New York in the 19th century, both of which represent
Bob Schnell
Apr 22, 2015 Bob Schnell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ever since Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle", consumer advocates have been trying to educate the public about what they eat and prosecute those who would tamper with our food for profit's sake. Bee Wilson's book "Swindled" traces the history of food adulteration from ancient times right up to the Chinese fake infant formula scandal of 2008. It is truly amazing to read about the lengths swindlers will go in order to increase profits, even to the point of endangering the public health. If you aren ...more
Kathleen Hulser
Jun 16, 2009 Kathleen Hulser rated it really liked it
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
Apr 20, 2015 William rated it really liked it
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
Jul 11, 2009 Buffy rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 04, 2016 Henna rated it really liked it
Shelves: food
The cover of this book caught my eye in the library and the subject was so interesting I just had to loan it. I was not familiar at all with history of food cheats and deceit so much of the information in the book came as a shock to me. It is unbelievable to what lengths people can go to because of greed or desperation.

This book concentrated mostly on nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and England. I did not find any part of the book boring, but I would have liked even more on more recen
Feb 13, 2009 Andrew rated it really liked it
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
Sep 05, 2014 Michael rated it really liked it
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
Pete Olds
Jan 21, 2015 Pete Olds rated it it was amazing
I have been eating stuff for almost all my life. And a pretty careful about stuff, including growing my own organic produce.

But this book was both entertaining (with the information around early food adulteration) and scary (with the information on current adulteration) and even more so, how we got to now, a place that we all know about, and yet accept because that is all we know.

The story jumps across a range of aspects, which keeps what could be a pretty heavy topic moving.

It's a book that sho
Sep 17, 2014 Sophie rated it did not like it
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 drin ...more
Jan 03, 2012 David rated it liked it
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
Jul 31, 2012 Michelle rated it really liked it
Shelves: food-history
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
Jul 27, 2013 Robyn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: culinary, nonfiction
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
Aug 19, 2014 Starbubbles rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
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
Jul 21, 2009 Rosa rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, food, adults, 2009
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
Oct 26, 2015 Mary rated it really liked it
Do you know what's in your food? Would you be upset if you found out? Swindled is a fascinating overview of the history of food cheating and adulteration. It's primarily concerned with British food, although mention is made of the United States, China, and Bangladesh.

The most troubling conclusion the book reaches is that, as you might expect, unadulterated food is much more easily obtained by the wealthy and privileged: those who have the time and money to source local foods and pay the premium
Feb 27, 2014 Miriam rated it it was amazing
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!
Feb 28, 2014 Mikki rated it really liked it
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.
Patrick Pilz
Jul 03, 2016 Patrick Pilz rated it really liked it
It does not matter that this book is now 8 years old, as the story starts about 200 years ago and continued since. Food adulteration is an ancient crime and triggered the establishment of food safety protocols, regulations and the reasons why we have FDA, USDA and all the other government agencies today. This book tells the story from the beginning of public discussions on food adulterations to recent cases. This is an interesting read for anyone involved in the food business.

It loses one star s
Jul 15, 2015 Amanda rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, food
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
Jan 11, 2014 Frank rated it it was amazing
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.
Kathryn Brocko
Apr 01, 2015 Kathryn Brocko rated it liked it
No wonder we have the FDA now.
Kris McCracken
Aug 09, 2013 Kris McCracken rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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
Apr 28, 2016 Meg rated it really liked it
It's equal parts fascinating and alarming to read about all of the disgusting things people have been tricked into eating throughout history. The scariest part is the implication that the modern food supply, having the biggest disconnect ever between producers and consumers, is more susceptible than ever to food fraud. Even so, I enjoyed feeling superior to the Victorians, who ate candy colored with lead and weird concoctions of fake miracle foods to improve their sluggish constitutions.
Mar 27, 2013 Thom rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
Apr 27, 2009 Kay rated it it was amazing
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!!
Jun 03, 2014 Bill rated it really liked it
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.
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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...

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