Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/January 1909/The Art of Bleaching and Dyeing as Applied to Food


By Professor E. H. S. BAILEY


AT last the time seems to have come when the public will have to choose between those food products which from their beauty of coloring or their superior whiteness appeal to the eye, although they may be of doubtful wholesomeness, and those foods which are in their natural state, and have not been "processed" to make them appear better or more desirable than they really are.

That we are becoming rapidly educated in matters that pertain to pure food there is no doubt, therefore those who are nearest the sources of information and who have the opportunity to study the action of foods upon the system may direct public opinion in the right channels. Thinking people always "want to know," even if they are not always quick to overcome prejudice and do what their judgment indicates is the best.

While we should be the last to attempt to retard the development of taste for the beautiful in coloring as well as in form, it is time to consider seriously what is to be the outcome of "carrying out the color scheme," in the parlance of the society reporter, in the domain of foods whose function is to nourish the human body.

For the past two or three years there has been a protest, in the more progressive journals devoted to hygiene and pure foods, against the bleaching of foods and the addition of color. This coloring has too often been practised to give the food a better appearance, and we regret to say, to simulate an article of better quality. We are now at a point where the people will have an opportunity to show by their support of existing legislation whether they are ready to take advanced ground against bleached and artificially colored foods.

While for hundreds of years bread made from a good quality of wheat was considered good enough, within the past few years a demand has arisen for white bread. If this notion is analyzed it will probably appear that it goes back to the time when a cheaper bread was made from rye flour or from badly milled wheat flour. Perhaps one reason for the dislike for a dark flour was that its use would indicate that the housewife could not afford a higher grade of flour. No doubt the beauty of the white loaf, with its rich brown crust and fine even texture, also appealed to her. The fact that starch was a comparatively cheap food, and the proteids which made the flour yellow was an expensive food, and that the bread made from the dark flour had a more delicate flavor, was lost sight of in the desire to have a "nice, white" bread to set before her guests.

But the conditions of living have changed, and now most of the bread, especially for the dwellers in the city and village, comes from the bakery. Now it is the baker who tries to fill the demand for a white loaf. With this demand comes naturally enough the effort to get a cheap flour that will make white bread, and the advent of bleached flour into the market.

That this flour is usually bleached by chemicals, just as much as your straw hat is bleached by sulfur fumes, and your sheeting is bleached by "chloride of lime" in the bleachery, is covered up by the statement that the flour is bleached by electricity. Electricity would not injure food, surely! There is no statement, however, that by the use of electricity both nitrous and nitric acid fumes as well as oxides of nitrogen are developed, and that they have, as Professor T. H. Shepard has recently shown, a powerful antiseptic action and actually retard digestion for a longer or shorter time, dependent on the strength, the action of ferments existing in saliva, in the gastric and in the pancreatic fluids. If this is true how can the product do otherwise than retard digestion?

Another phase of the bleached flour question is that this process is used to enable the miller to put on the market a larger per cent, of white flour than he otherwise could, and, of course, greatly to his advantage. This bleached flour is then plainly misbranded unless it bears the label "artificially bleached." Then the customer can purchase this chemically treated flour if he thinks best.

While discussing the use of a bleachery in the preparation of foods, what about the use of sulfur fumes in drying fruits, on the large scale? Is it not possible, the careful housewife inquires, by using a little more care and better stock to dry these fruits without the use of sulfur, or at least with the use of an extremely small quantity? It is true that the dried product may by its color suggest the article that our grandmother used to prepare on the farm. After all, was that so very objectionable, and was the flavor of a dried apple pie made from fruit that had not been bleached and processed until all flavor was gone, so very disagreeable that we did not ask for another piece?

Since the people possibly had the idea that white asparagus was better than green, and that a light-colored sweet corn was more agreeable to the customer than that having the slightly yellow color which nature had given it, the manufacturers began to bleach these products with sulfites in the process of canning. This was in deference to a supposed demand, but the fact that the sulfites might injure the flavor and lower the value of the food from a dietetic standpoint, was entirely lost sight of by the packers.

That much of the food still on the market has been badly spoiled by the art of the colorist, as well as at the bleachery, goes without saying. It is necessary to mention only a few of the foods that have been mistreated in this way. Maraschino cherries are sometimes first bleached and then dyed with coal-tar colors, like a piece of dress goods, any color to suit the prevailing style. Tomato catsup has to bear the burden of sometimes containing much of the refuse, peelings and inferior fruit of the cannery, preserved, it is true, by benzoate of soda, but brought up to the brilliant color desired, by the liberal use of aniline colors. We find it hard to resist the suggestion that in some of these products color is added to conceal inferiority. The best tomato catsup, however, is not made after the receipt mentioned above.

Within the last two or three years artificial color has not been as abundantly used in jams and jellies as formerly, thanks to the provision in the laws of most states, that the constituents of the product must be plainly stated on the label, or the goods would be condemned as misbranded.

Now-a-days you can actually buy ground mustard of good quality that has not been colored yellow with turmeric to cover the inferiority of an article of low grade. Since lemons happen to be yellow, the manufacturers of the extract have thought it allowable to make a weak alcoholic solution of the oil of lemon and color it yellow with a coal-tar dye so that it might appeal to the eye of the purchaser, who, of course, does not investigate by removing the cork and tasting the material. It was a serious fraud upon the consumer. Fortunately, however, at the present time, the people are becoming educated so that there is a demand for an almost colorless extract of lemon, of standard strength. They were no doubt surprised to learn that it did not have to be yellow to be good.

Not long ago the author had occasion to examine a can of French peas (petits pois). They were of a brilliant green color and evidently colored by the use of sulfate of copper. A very tasty brass label was soldered on to one side of the can. When this was removed, however, there appeared in English the statement, "colored with sulfate of copper." Thus the deception practised had been concealed from the consumer.

Bleaching, as carried on by the use of moisture and sunlight, upon the household linen, was apparently a natural process, at least it did not injure the goods. By growing plants away from the sunlight, and thus retarding the growth of the chlorophyl cells, it is possible to bleach the stems and other parts. The natural color of fruit is developed by growth in air and sunshine. We are content with the ruddy glow of the apple, the blush of the peach and the rich scarlet of the strawberry, and ask no artificial coloring to improve them. When these fruits are preserved, or extracts or juices are put upon the market, are we not entitled to the natural product without falsification or adornment? If in the process of preserving the color is not wholly retained, let it go; the flavor of the fruit will not suffer from loss of color, and we soon learn that this change of color goes with fruit preserved in that particular way. The manufacturer prepares only what he believes is demanded by the people, so, after all, the consumers must indicate whether they want artificially colored food or not.

In regard to the artificial coloring of ice-cream, jams, jellies, preserves, gelatin preparations, canned fruits, vegetables, extracts and all foods that have heretofore been colored, the safest position is to demand that they appear on the market without the so-called "improvement," by the art of the color manufacturer, no matter how skillful he be. In this way only are we assured of the quality of the article and its freedom, from this source, at least, from injurious ingredients.