Things aren’t always as they appear to be at the grocery store. In fact, food fraud is still a problem even in developed countries. What is food fraud? It’s when an item is adulterated or misrepresented. For example, an item might be marketed as 100% extra-virgin olive oil and be diluted with other less expensive oils. A more serious form of fraud is when a manufacturer adds something hazardous to a product to reduce costs or make it weigh more. In fact, food fraud may involve substitutions, the addition of unlisted additives, contamination with foreign substances, or mislabeling.
Who can forget the melamine scare where Chinese manufacturers added melamine to dog food, leading to the death of pets? But food fraud doesn’t just happen overseas. According to the Food Safety Net Services, these ten foods are the most common sources of food fraud.
When you see an inexpensive bottle of olive oil, question its contents. When the FDA tested a variety of olive oils on store shelves, they found some were diluted with less pricey oils, like soybean oil or peanut oil. The olive looks similar to a bottle of pure olive oil but contains chemically refined oils too. Also, manufacturers sometimes use peanut oil for diluting olive oil and this could prove devastating to some with a peanut allergy. Avoid cheap brands and look for a label that says the oil has been certified as pure.
Much milk fraud occurs in developing countries, although more developed countries aren’t immune to it either. The most common form of fraud is to dilute milk with water, although milk can also be diluted with sugar, urea, milk powder or even hazardous substances like melamine or detergents.
Is the milk in your fridge pure? Pure milk flows slowly when you place it on a slick surface like glass and leave behind a trail. In contrast, milk diluted with other substances flows quickly and leaves no mark behind it.
Experts warn that some honey isn’t pure. Manufacturers sometimes add corn syrup to thicken and sweeten the product so they can include less honey and make more profit. However, the problem may not be as pervasive as experts thought. When an independent testing company analyzed 30 brands of honey labeled as pure honey, 28 met the criteria of being pure. The brands they tested make up about 40% of the honey sold in retail markets. Still, make sure you’re buying from a reputable source.
Saffron is a prized and costly spice, so it’s not surprising that food fraud occurs. Some saffron that ends up in retail outlets comes from Spain. When researchers looked at 44 retail saffron products, they found more than half of the samples were fraudulent or misrepresented. Many of the samples originated from other countries but were labeled as grown in Spain.
Powdered saffron is more likely to be fraudulent since manufacturers add other spices like paprika to dilute it. For saffron fibers, they can add vegetable oil to increase weight. How do you know if your saffron is pure? If you place it in water and it turns bright yellow, it’s probably genuine saffron. Fake or adulterated saffron often turns red when you place it in water.
Do you pay more for 100% orange juice thinking you’re getting the real thing? You might envision freshly squeezed orange juice in that container, but what you end up with could be up to a year old. Manufacturers squeeze the juice from fresh oranges and store it in giant vats for many months. Since the vat contains no oxygen, the orange juice loses its flavor. To bright its taste, manufacturers add flavoring and fragrance to make it smell and taste like fresh-squeezed. Sneaky, huh? Plus, independent testing shows cases of manufacturers adding high fructose corn syrup or other cheaper juices like lemon juice to orange juice. Buyer beware!
Like orange juice, 100% apple juice can have some unexpected additions. This popular beverage can be diluted with other juices, particularly grape juice, or contain high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. As an aside, apple juice is one of the most common sources of inorganic arsenic. In fact, independent testing of some brands of apple juice shows concerning levels of arsenic. Independent testing by Consumer Reports found high levels of lead and inorganic arsenic in half of the brands of apple, grape, and pear juice they tested. It’s another reason to stick to whole fruit.
Fraud is alive and well in the wine industry. Some practices include adding water to wine to dilute it and adding flavoring, additives, or coloring agents, including elderberry juice. Plus some winemakers and manufacturers of inexpensive wine counterfeit their labels to look like more expensive brands. According to Wine Spectator, up to 20% of wines sold at retail across the globe may be fraudulent or misrepresented.
With the price of vanilla extract on the rise, it’s not surprising that fraud exists. To squeeze more profit out of every bottle, manufacturers can add a variety of additives and flavorings, including sugar alcohols and synthetic vanillin. More concerning is some manufacturers add tonka beans. These beans contain a chemical called coumarin that can be toxic to the liver. So that “pure” vanilla extract may not be as pure as the label leads you to believe.
Here the problem is manufacturers try to pass off maple syrup derived from tree sap with table syrup, a sticky sweet, highly processed rendition of what goes on pancakes. The latter version contains corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup and additives and thickeners for texture. Then, manufacturers add flavorings to mimic real maple.
The Bottom Line
Do your research before buying anything at the grocery store and don’t always buy based on price. The cheapest product might sound like a good deal, but it may not be real. Even worse, it could contain risky additives or contaminants that aren’t listed on the label.
· National Center for Food Protection and Defense. “Backgrounder: Defining the Public Health Threat of Food Fraud”
· Food Safety Net Services. “What is Food Fraud?”
· Epicurious.com. “Seven Ways to Tell If Your Olive Oil Is Fake”
· Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 15(1):n/a-n/a · October 2015.
· American Council on Science and Health. “Fake Honey Is A Problem And Science Can Solve It – If Government Gets Out Of The Way”
· Food Dive. “Honey testing reveals no labeling fraud, study shows”
· Science Daily. “Chemical fingerprints confirm the saffron fraud”
· Food Renegade. “The Secret Ingredient in Your Orange Juice”
· Consumer Reports. “Arsenic and Lead Are in Your Fruit Juice: What You Need to Know”
· Wine Spectator. “Who Are They Fooling? (A Lot of Folks)”