Benjamin R. Cohen


On his book Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Cover Interview of March 25, 2020

In a nutshell

Pure Adulteration is about the origins of manufactured food. More centrally, it is about the struggles people had with the introduction of new foods in the later 1800s. The book follows the “pure food crusades” that raged between the 1860s and early 1900s as a window onto those forms of resistance and accommodation.

That era revealed confusing new tensions in the ways people understood, bought, trusted, and ate their food. Cultural factors help explain why anyone cared. They show that a prevailing suspicion of cheats, frauds, hucksters, and con men—and an associated fervor for sincerity, authenticity, and honesty—provided the foundation from which the era was born.

Environmental factors help explain how the prevailing cultural concerns made things worse. New supply chains, complex commodity flows, far-flung land-use patterns, and theretofore unknown ingredients all formed a new infrastructure of food and agriculture that made the view from farm to fork thick and opaque.

Together, that host of cultural and environmental conditions shaped the pure-food crusades and the set of chemists, analysts, and public health officials bent on commandeering and policing the concept of purity. The brunt of those collective changes led to this: whereas into the mid-nineteenth century it was still common to understand food purity based on its origins, its provenance, and its purveyors, by the early twentieth century the concept of purity had moved from its agricultural setting to be relocated into the hands of the analyst and lab. Purity had become a scientific concept policed by government agencies and backed by certified analysis. It would be the analysts and scientists who drew the line between pure and adulterated.

All of that suggests that a different way to give the “in a nutshell” answer is that Pure Adulteration is about how people changed the way they drew the line between pure and adulterated. There is (and was) no natural, pre-human distinction that we can simply uncover and enforce; we have to decide where to draw it and how to police it.

Today’s world is different from that of our nineteenth-century forbearers in so many ways, but the challenge of policing the difference between acceptable and unacceptable practices remains central to daily decisions about the foods we eat, how we produce them, and what choices we make when buying them.

I want readers to see how people made meaning about big key terms that we may otherwise take for granted: nature and artifice, authenticity and insincerity, purity and adulteration. Trust and confidence sit at the center of all of those terms—whether we trust people, why we do, what we trust them about, how we challenge those modes of trust and belief. I hope readers gain the view that modern, post-war worries over industrial food identity and health have their basis much earlier in century-old modes of producing, buying, and consuming food. If we want food reform today, we need to have a clearer understanding of the foundations of our manufactured, industrial food system.