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An adulterant is a pejorative term for a substance found within other substances such as food, fuels or chemicals, although it should not be present for some reason. It will not normally be present in any specification or declared contents of the substance, and may not be legally allowed. The addition of adulterants is called adulteration. The most common reason for adulteration is the use by manufacturers of undeclared materials that are cheaper than the correct and declared ones. The adulterants may be harmful, or reduce the potency of the product, or they may be harmless.

The term "contamination" is usually used for the inclusion of unwanted substances due to accident or negligence rather than intent, and also for the introduction of unwanted substances after the product has been made. Adulteration therefore implies that the adulterant was introduced deliberately in the initital manufacturing process, or sometimes that it was present in the raw materials and should have been removed, but was not.

An adulterant is distinct from, for example, permitted food additives. There can be a fine line between adulterant and additive; chicory may be added to coffee to reduce the cost or achieve a desired flavour—this is adulteration if not declared, but may be stated on the label. Chalk was often added to bread flour; this reduces the cost and increases whiteness, but the calcium actually confers health benefits, and in modern bread a little chalk may be included as an additive for this reason.

Adulterants added to reduce the amount of expensive product in illicit drugs are called cutting agents. Deliberate addition of toxic adulterants to food or other products for human consumption is poisoning.

In food and beverages[edit]

Past and present examples of adulteration, some dangerous, include:


Historically, the use of adulterants has been common; sometimes dangerous substances have been used. In the United Kingdom up to the Victorian era, adulterants were common; for example, cheeses were sometimes colored with lead. Similar adulteration issues were seen in industry in the United States, during the 19th century. There is dispute over whether these practices declined primarily due to government regulation or to increased public awareness and concern over the practices. In the early 21st century, cases of dangerous adulteration occurred in the People's Republic of China.

Adulterant use was first investigated in 1820 by the German chemist Frederick Accum, who identified many toxic metal colorings in food and drink. His work antagonized food suppliers, and he was ultimately discredited by a scandal over his alleged mutilation of books of the Royal Institution library. The physician Arthur Hill Hassall conducted extensive studies in the early 1850s, which were published in The Lancet and led to the 1860 Food Adulteration Act and other legislation.[3] John Postgate led a further campaign, leading to another Act of 1875, which forms the basis of the modern legislation and a system of public analysts who test for adulteration.

At the turn of the 20th century, industrialization in the United States led to a rise in adulteration which inspired some protest. Accounts of adulteration led the New York Evening Post to parody:

Mary had a little lamb,

And when she saw it sicken,
She shipped it off to Packingtown,

And now it's labeled chicken.[4]

However, even in the 18th century, people complained about adulteration in food:

"The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone ashes, insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn [wheat]. Thus they sacrifice their taste and their health. . . to a most absurd gratification of a misjudged eye; and the miller or the baker is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession." – Tobias Smollet, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771)[5]

Incidents of adulteration[edit]

  • In 1987, Beech-Nut was fined for violating the US Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by selling flavored sugar water as apple juice.[6]
  • In 1997, ConAgra Foods illegally sprayed water on stored grain to increase its weight.[7]
  • In 2007, samples of wheat gluten mixed with melamine, presumably to produce inflated results from tests for protein content, were discovered in the USA. They were found to have come from China. (See: Chinese protein adulteration.)
  • In 2008, significant portions of China's milk supply were found to have been adulterated with melamine. Infant formula produced from this milk killed at least six children and is believed to have harmed thousands of others. (See: 2008 Chinese milk scandal.)
  • In 2012, a study in India across 29 states and union territories found that milk was adulterated with detergent, fat, and even urea, and diluted with water. Just 31.5% of samples conformed to FSSAI standards.[8]
  • In the 2013 meat adulteration scandal in Europe, horsemeat was passed off as beef.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Weise, Elizabeth (April 24, 2007). "Food tests promise tough task for FDA". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  2. ^ Burros, Marian (2006-08-09). "The Customer Wants a Juicy Steak? Just Add Water". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ The fight against food adulteration, Noel G Coley, RSC, Education in Chemistry, Issues, Mar 2005
  4. ^ Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 59
  5. ^ Weston A.Price: Against the Grain, Section Bread to Feed the Masses
  6. ^ Juiceless baby juice leads to full-length justice|FDA Consumer
  7. ^ ConAgra Set to Settle Criminal Charges It Increased Weight and Value of Grain – New York Times
  8. ^ Sinha, Kounteya (10 January 2012). "70% of milk in Delhi, country is adulterated". Times of India. Retrieved 23 February 2014.