Nutrition is a funny thing. One day all the doctors are recommending cream and eggs for our hearts, the next they’re banned from the menu, and the day after we’re back on the eggs because they’re not bad for your cholesterol after all. Luckily we have scientist Alice Roberts, chef Tom Kerridge and journalist Sean Fletcher working together on Food Detectives to help us eat healthier because history is filled with bad meal decisions.
Lead sweetened meals in Roman households
It was history’s first artificial sweetener, and Sugar of Lead took the ancient Roman world by storm. They discovered that boiling unfermented grape juice created a sweet liquid – and it was even better if the boiling took place in a lead container instead of a brass one. Once those experimenting Romans figured out how to make a crystalline form of the stuff, they were off the races... as well as a substance containing 1000 times the acceptable dose of lead in most of today’s countries. Oops.
Cocaine put some pep in your step
Even today there are plenty of fast-talking people at parties who’ll tell you about the benefits of cocaine. But back when it was the key ingredient in Coca-Cola, doctors claimed it was an effective treatment for tuberculosis and asthma, while psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud spruiked its ability to cure not only depression, but also indigestion! (Sadly, the depression returns with a vengeance a few days after use.)
Radioactive water was filled with healing nutrients
It sounds like the premise of a circa-1960s comic book, but back at the beginning of last century there was a mania for radioactive stuff. Because it was deemed to be so healthy and healing, radioactive drinks were on shelves and in stomachs. The result was summed up in the Wall Street Journal’s horrifyingly memorable headline about wealthy industrialist Eben Byers: “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”.
Cyclamate is all sweetness, no sugar
Today online conspiracy theorists rail against the aspartame found in diet soft drinks, but the scariest artificial sweetener of recent decades has got to be cyclamate - most frequently used in powdered drinks. In 1969, a study showed the stuff caused bladder cancer in rats (when combined with saccharin), and further exploration found it was also involved in birth defects, liver cancer, and shrinkage of the testicles. Probably stick to the full-sugar options, eh?
Wraps are so much thinner than normal bread
Now you’ve spent four entries laughing at the idiots of the past, it’s time for a more recent example. You wouldn’t suspect it to look at them, but those wraps you’re filling with a lorikeet’s worth of multicoloured vegetables tend to be chock-full of salt. It’s an important reminder to check food labels carefully, because things aren’t always what they seem at first glance. Just ask Freud or the ancient Romans...
Catch up with the Food Detectives on SBS Thursday nights at 8:30pm. Previous episodes are streaming on SBS On Demand: