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Greek god Dionysus with wine. Source: rudall30 / Adobe Stock

Romans Added Lead Sweetener to Their Wine and it Killed Them

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How far did ancient people go to enhance the flavor of their food and drinks? Would they consume toxic substances if it made things a little more appetizing? Well, the Romans did, by adding a sweet version of lead to their wine and, later, to their food. Some scholars say that widespread lead poisoning contributed to the fall of the powerful Roman empire.

Pliny the Elder Cato the Elder , and  Columella wrote that a syrup was produced by boiling unfermented grape juice in order to concentrate its natural sugars. If the juice was reduced to one third of its original volume, it was called  sapa.

As the juice was boiled in kettles made of lead alloys, this harmful element seeped into the syrup. By reacting with the acetate ions in the  grape juice , lead(II) acetate was produced, a highly toxic chemical compound. In fact, sapa, or ‘sugar of lead’, contained lead levels 200 times higher than today’s acceptable level.

The Romans added a toxic sweetener to their wine called sapa. (Paolo Gallo / Adobe Stock)

The Romans added a toxic sweetener to their wine called sapa. ( Paolo Gallo / Adobe Stock)

The ancient  Romans used sapa as a form of artificial  sweetener, especially in  wines. They eventually found a way to turn sugar of lead into crystal form. This meant that the toxic substance could be produced in the way  table salt  or sugar is produced today. As a consequence of this innovation, the consumption of sugar of lead became even more widespread, and started to be used in cooking as well. In the 4th century Roman recipe book of  Apicius, almost a fifth of the recipes were made with sugar of lead in its syrup form.

The writings of some ancient Roman authors indicate that the Romans were aware of the dangers of lead consumption; but by then, the damage had already been done. Side effects included dementia, infertility, cognitive difficulties, fatigue, gout and eventually organs shutting down.

Sugar of lead wasn't the only source of lead poisoning in ancient Rome. Romans also drank water transported through lead pipes , making the water hazardous for their health. Research in 2019 suggested that more than half the population in Roman-era London was dealing with health issues caused by lead poisoning.

Read more: Savoring the Danger: Romans Loved Toxic 'Sugar of Lead' Wine

Top image: Greek god Dionysus with wine. Source:  rudall30 / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

Comments

It's not like this could happen today. No one would want to to put heavy metals into their body via dental fillings or a Covid vaccine.

Doesn't seem like it made that much of a dent considering how long the empire lasted, and that's not including the byzantine period, assuming the practice still existed then, which is pretty likely.

Pete Wagner's picture

Like much of the catacombs and megalith stone foundations, lead pipes were probably the work (invention) of the prehistoric aboriginal culture that was decimated and supplanted by the brutal, power-lusting Romans, who arrived on the scene much later.  It’s possible that the genetics of the Romans (Persians as well, and/or descendents of the ‘black-headed’ Sumerian tribes) were not as capable of metabolizing ingested metals as the aboriginals.  Like today, where some ethnicities need LOW SALT diets compared to others, whose good health requires daily sea salt intake for mineral (electolyte) balance.  Medical science clumps the ethnicities together and dubiously makes one-size-fits-all health and nutrition claims.  But the reality is, each genetic type will react differently to what they put into their bodies, and so each should be studying the issues from a specific genetic-centric approach.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Pete Wagner's picture

Glutamate (from wheat) is actually a very important nutrient, despite maybe some ethnicities having problems with it.  But like with salt, fat and gluten in general, it gets a bad rap.  I never cook without it, critical for good taste, and never had a problem with it.  That said, there are so many additives that I do avoid, particularly non-natural fats/oils, preservatives and colorings.  If there’s a long list of chemical ingredients, you say no thanks.  Triscuits are great - 3 simple ingredients!

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

"Well, the Romans did"

As we do today, add toxic substances to our food to enhance flavour. MSG is the one substance which comes quickly to mind but there are many others, which are equally toxic.

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