Saturday, September 20, 2008

Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee, by Bee Wilson


The title of this book makes it sounds like it some type of novelty caper, an unmasking of food jiggery-pokery. Happily, Swindled is much better and more serious than that. Bee Wilson is perhaps more historian than food writer, or that's what came through in the text. She writes in a nicely nuanced style that draws you into her subject. Wilson has obviously thought deeply about the nature of food adulteration and what it means for the culture and public health. This comes through in her splendid writing.

Swindled tracks the history of food adulteration and those who exposed these food frauds, starting in the nineteenth century. Essentially, food frauds flourished (if I can use that expression) the longer the chain between food producer and eater became. The less we have to do with our food growing, processing and cooking, the more we are prone to food swindles. The rise of industrialisation has also meant a rise in dubious foods. (Interestingly, industrialising China is plagued with food scandals.)

The most interesting part of the book for me was how food swindling has come to be totally accepted as part of our food culture. Fake colours and flavours are all completely normal now. In one part of the book Wilson describes how a fake cherry is made. I myself recall eating these fake cherries as a youngster out of the fridge, most likely thinking these were the real thing. Thus fake flavours now quite often precede our experience of real flavours.

Our taste buds have been corrupted by fake foods. This has been my theory since I started reading about food. Personally, I think foods are more like drugs now, and we are hooked on these techno foods that are made in the chemist's labs. In fact, we now prefer fake food to real food.

This is one of the terrible paradoxes of Swindled. Wilson shows that how during the Second World War the health of Britons was better than before the war or after. Why? Wholemeal bread and more fruit and vegetables. After the war, the British went back to their fake foods with a vengeance.

By book's end Wilson has really developed a strong argument against adulterated food. She suggests we need to change our food culture and start prizing real, whole foods. We need to recapture our taste buds.

How do we do this? Bee Wilson says we know more than we think we do about food. Our instincts tell us that a deliciously sweet tasting orange is good to eat. We know from it's brilliant orange colour and zesty aroma as we cut it open that it will not only make us feel good, but will promote good health. We don't need specialists and nutritionists to tell us that.

This is another of my theories (if I may be so immodest as to put it forward here), that our bodies will tell us what is good for us. Morgan Spurlock proved this with his doco about McDonalds. Eating that food made him feel sick. I've yet to hear of someone falling sick from eating a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Top marks to Bee Wilson's Swindled. She's an intelligent and sensitive writer. I'll certainly look into reading her other book about bees, The Hive.

Whoa! I just discovered from Wikipedia that Bee Wilson is the daughter of A. N Wilson.

1 comment:

Miles McClagan said...

If I find out the bees are copping some fraudulent treatment, there'll be trouble...