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G FORCE | BEE WILSON

The real thing

Bee Wilson takes a look at the history of food adulteration in her new book. Bee Wilson takes a look at the history of food adulteration in her new book. (Georgia Glynn Smith)
By Stephen Meuse
Globe Correspondent / November 24, 2008
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In "Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee," 34-year-old British historian and food journalist Bee Wilson conducts a creepy tour of several centuries of culinary fakery, misrepresentation, and outright criminality. Wilson writes a weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph magazine and is a contributor to the Sunday Times and The Times Literary Supplement. She has twice been named Food Journalist of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers. We spoke on a recent visit to Boston.

Q. Food adulteration has been going on a long time, not all of it criminal or even immoral.

A. Everyone is familiar with the practice. We water the soup to make it go further and add breadcrumbs to the meatballs. There is even something I call legalized adulteration that applies to a large percentage of what's in the supermarket.

Q. Additives can be a good thing. Think of fluoride in the water supply.

A. And iodine in salt. So-called nutraceuticals are added to food with good intent, but do they really belong there? Vitamin D has been put into frankfurters with the idea of making an unhealthy food healthy.

Q. Don't laws protect us from dangerous food?

A. In the West we do seem to have moved beyond the worst excesses. We were saved from the melamine scandal in China, for example.

Q. No one wants to be poisoned, but sometimes the public craves dubious food.

A. Chicken tikka masala, which has become a kind of British national dish, may be an example of this. It's made to look bright red with the addition of food coloring, often in dangerous amounts. When steps were taken to regulate it, the tabloids screamed "Don't [mess with] our tikka!" Adulterators count on us to acquire a taste for adulterated products.

Q. What approach do you take at home to eating safely?

A. I cook every night with good ingredients; sometimes organic, sometimes not. I grow vegetables - potatoes, zucchini. My children are 9 and 5. The oldest just learned to make French toast. I let them have candy once or twice a week and a root beer once in a while.

Q. Toward the end of your book you suggest some strategies for eating with less anxiety.

A. I think there's danger in becoming so fixated on pure food that pleasure is lost sight of, especially since all food has impurities. Pleasure is important. One of the biggest fallacies we've been sold is the idea that the unhealthy stuff is the most delicious.

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