An adulterant is a chemical substance which should not be contained within other substances (e.g. food, beverages, fuels) for legal or other reasons.[clarification needed] Adulterants may be intentionally added to more expensive substances to increase visible quantities and reduce manufacturing costs or for some other deceptive or malicious purpose. Adulterants may also be accidentally or unknowingly introduced into substances. The addition of adulterants is called adulteration.

The word is only appropriate when the additions are unwanted by the recipient, otherwise the expression would be food additive. Adulterants when used in illicit drugs are called cutting agents, while deliberate addition of toxic adulterants to food or other products for human consumption is known as poisoning.


In food and beverages

Examples of adulteration include:


Historically, the usage of adulterants has been common in societies with few legal controls on food quality and/or poor/nonexistent monitoring by authorities; sometimes this usage has even extended to exceedingly dangerous chemicals and poisons. In the United Kingdom during the Victorian era, adulterants were quite common; for example, cheeses were sometimes colored with lead. Similar adulteration issues were seen in industry in the United States, until the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. More recently, adulterant use in the People's Republic of China has inspired much public attention. (See: Food safety in the People's Republic of China).

Adulterant usage 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 Royal Institution library books. The physician Arthur Hill Hassall later conducted extensive studies in the early 1850s, which were published in The Lancet and led to the 1860 Food Adulteration Act and subsequent further legislation.[5]

At the turn of the 20th century, industrialization in the United States saw an uprise in adulteration and this 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.[6]

However, even back in the 18th century, people recognized 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)[7]

A history of food poisoning and adulteration is found in the textbook, Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History.[8]

In drug tests

Adulterants can be also added to urine, in order to interfere with the accuracy of drug tests. These adulterants are often oxidative in nature - hydrogen peroxide and bleach have been used, sometimes with pH-adjusting substances like vinegar or sodium bicarbonate. These can be detected by drug testing labs, but some less expensive tests do not look for them.[citation needed]

Notable incidents of adulteration

  • In 1987, Beech-Nut paid $2.2 million in fines for violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by selling artificially flavored sugar water as apple juice.[9]
  • In 1997, ConAgra Foods pled guilty to federal criminal charges that one of its units illegally sprayed water on stored grain to increase its weight and value.[10]
  • In 2007, samples of wheat gluten mixed with melamine, presumably to produce artificially inflated results from common tests for protein content, were discovered in many U.S. pet food brands, as well as in human food supply. The adulterated gluten was found to have come from China, and U.S. authorities concluded that its origin was the Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company, a Xuzhou, China-based company. (See: Chinese protein adulteration.)
  • In 2008, significant portions of China's milk supply were found to have been contaminated with melamine. Infant formula produced from melamine-tainted milk killed at least six children and were believed to have harmed thousands of others. (See: 2008 Chinese milk scandal.)

See also

  • Impurity
  • International Reaction to the 2008 Dairy Scandal


Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Adulterant — A*dul ter*ant, n. [L. adulterans, p. pr. of adulterare.] That which is used to adulterate anything. a. Adulterating; as, adulterant agents and processes. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • adulterant — n *admixture, alloy …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • adulterant — [ə dul′tər ənt] n. a substance that adulterates adj. adulterating; making inferior or impure …   English World dictionary

  • adulterant — noun Date: circa 1755 an adulterating substance or agent • adulterant adjective …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • adulterant — /euh dul teuhr euhnt/, n. 1. a substance that adulterates. adj. 2. adulterating. [1745 55; < L adulterant (s. of adulterans, prp. of adulterare), equiv. to ad AD + ulter (see ADULTERATE) + ant ANT] * * * …   Universalium

  • adulterant — An impurity; an additive that is considered to have an undesirable effect or to dilute the active material so as to reduce its therapeutic or monetary value. * * * adul·ter·ant ə dəl t(ə )rənt n an adulterating substance or agent adulterant ad …   Medical dictionary

  • adulterant — An impure, debased, or cheaper substance put into or mixed with another substance. A substance used as a preservative may be an adulterant within the prohibition of a statute or ordinance in relation to pure food. Anne: 50 ALR 76 …   Ballentine's law dictionary

  • adulterant — adulterate ► VERB ▪ make poorer in quality by adding another substance. DERIVATIVES adulterant adjective adulteration noun. ORIGIN Latin adulterare to corrupt …   English terms dictionary

  • adulterant — adj. & n. adj. used in adulterating. n. an adulterant substance …   Useful english dictionary

  • adulterant — noun That which adulterates; or reduces the purity of …   Wiktionary

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