Abstract Food adulteration was a major contributor to the poor quality of life in the overcrowded, ill-provisioned and under-regulated industrial towns of early 19th century Britain. Fraudulent adulteration of basic foodstuffs, the use of preservatives and colorants, and bacterial contamination are examined successively to show that by 1900 the majority of basic foods were legally pure, but that ‘legalized adulteration’ with chemicals was widespread, even increasing. The improvement in food quality in the later Victorian period is generally attributed to advances in food chemistry, and the skill and professionalism of food analysts operating within new regulatory frameworks. This article contends that economic factors — changes in food supply, the structure and organization of food manufacturing and distribution, and business ethics — played an equally important role.

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