What is an Adulterant?

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  • Written By: Laura Evans
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 20 January 2020
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Additives are substances that are combined with other material for a beneficial reason. An adulterant is a substance that has a negative effect and is added deliberately to another substance despite any consequences. An example of the an adulterant would be melamine, which was added to milk by the Chinese company Sanlu in 2006. Melamine is an industrial chemical that made the milk appear as if it had more protein content than it actually did. This adulterant caused the development of kidney stones, resulting in thousands of children becoming ill and several fatalities.

One form of adulteration, or adding adulterants, that has been used throughout history is the deliberate addition poisons to foods or beverages with the intent of killing another individual. Poisoning symptoms could be misinterpreted as symptoms of other diseases or illnesses. In addition, the science for detecting poisoning did not really start developing until the 1800s.


People who have been victims of poisoning include the famous Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 469 BC–399 BC), who, after being sentenced to death by the Greek state for impious acts, drank a beverage laced with hemlock. Purported Italian witch Hieronyma Spara, who was ultimately hanged on orders from the Catholic Church, taught young Roman women how to murder their husbands using arsenic during the 1600s. In 1984, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1934-1990), also known as "Osho," spiked salad bars in Oregon with salmonella, resulting in more than 750 illnesses, which was perhaps the first act of bioterrorism in the United States.

Adulterants are not just used in foods or beverages. These substances are also used to cut illicit or illegal drugs to make the drugs less potent. In this case, the word "adulterant" takes on a more neutral tone, although some adulterants can be dangerous. For example, methamphetamine is sometimes used to cut cocaine in areas where methamphetamine is very inexpensive. Common adulterants used as cutting agents include mannitol, inositol, and lactose.

In addition to individuals adding adulterants to products, companies may try to extend their profit margins by extending their products. In addition to Sanlu, Apple Valley International, Inc, substituted the less-expensive beet sugar as an adulterant for orange juice concentrate in the company's frozen orange juice, and maple sugar distributor W. Lyman Jenkins represented a mainly sugar-cane sugar as a pure maple sugar. Both companies faced criminal prosecution. While neither of these incidents resulted in any illnesses, people were defrauded because these products were misrepresented.


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