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Victorian kitchens

In addition to hazardous devices for boiling water, cooking, heating, and all the other household chores, many nineteenth-century ‘advances’ in food technology had hidden drawbacks. Two frequently cited examples arose from attempts to improve the appearance of bread and milk. There was a fashion to add alum to bread to increase the weight and bulk. This greatly improved the profits compared with using good grain, and helped with the colour. Alums are aluminium-based chemicals that reduce the nutritional value of the bread and cause many bowel problems (which can be fatal, particularly for children). At a time of high infant mortality, the link to contaminated bread was less obvious than it would be today.

With advent of a good rail network, milk was easily transported from the country into cities. The overall delivery time was still slow, however, so not only was it potentially contaminated with bovine tuberculosis, but it was often sour on arrival. To disguise the taste, people added bor- acic acid (as recommended by Mrs Beeton). Unfortunately, the consequences of boracic acid range from nausea and vomiting to diarrhoea. It did nothing to inhibit TB; modern estimates suggest that at least half a million British Victorian children died from bovine TB.

In terms of food, there is no room for modern complacency, as the products we buy have been treated and ‘improved’ with many additives. There may indeed be a list of contents and indications of nutritional value or percentage of sugar, etc. on packaged food, but for most of us the names of the additives, preservatives, and taste enhancers are meaningless jargon. I am probably typical in having very little real understanding of which ones are potentially harmful. The same confusion applies for many ‘experts’ in the food industry, as opinions on the value of, say, fats, sugar, and cholesterol oscillate between good and bad in ways that seem only to depend on the expert who is backing a particular view.

Another source of confusion is that some additives in Europe are listed with E numbers, but the regulations governing their use differ between countries. Even for food experts, this makes it difficult to know how problematic such compounds really are.

Extra information may not help, as our analytical technologies have advanced, and we can now analyse the multitude of bacteria that exist in our mouth or stomach. Our word association says ‘bacteria’ is bad news. Our instinct is to have an emotive reaction and try to kill all the bacteria. This is incorrect, as bacteria are essential for our well-being. Just like the word ‘nuclear’ in the original description of MRI scans, we probably need some alternative that does not have the same emotive overtones as bacteria, and try to invent a new word for ‘good’ bacteria as distinct from ‘harmful’ versions. This is still a fairly naive proposal, as the same bacteria react differently in different situations.

Hindsight so far

The very positive aspect of the items I selected here are that, whilst there have been hidden problems, our knowledge base is expanding, and we are able to look back with a mixture of amusement and amazement at the innovations of earlier generations. We may even be impressed that they made so much progress without a detailed understanding of the underlying science. Equally, we are now surprised that they did not recognize many of the negative features of their new ideas and products. Before totally congratulating ourselves, it is worth noting that our grandchildren may make precisely the same comments about us.

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