In my effort to eat healthier and more ethically, I tend to gravitate towards foods that are organic, non-GMO, and locally grown—hence the $8 eggs I accidentally bought last week. Have you ever stopped to wonder what those phrases and certifications on food labels actually mean? Remember when Naked got in trouble for falsely advertising their juice as containing quality, healthful ingredients? And when we found out the truth behind food labels like cage-free, antibiotic-free, and certified organic? These are examples of food fraud.
Food fraud is not just when companies fraudulently market their products as something they're not. Dr. John Spink of Michigan State University’s Food Fraud Initiative defines food fraud as “a collective term used to encompass the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product, for economic gain.” No matter how you spin it, food fraud is shady business.
But without a subscription to the The United States Pharmacopeial Convention food fraud database, how do you protect yourself against food fraud? The answer is, well, it’s hard. There are thousands of ingredients and food fraud records in the database. To help you out, I put together a fairly short list of common foods that you should always keep an eye on.
The most dangerous example of food counterfeiting is olive oil. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is the healthiest oil we can eat. However, the hard truth is that according to a study conducted by the UC Davis Olive Center, only 69 percent of bottles labeled “extra virgin” are actually extra virgin. The harder truth is that manufacturers can cut it with vegetable, soybean, and sometimes a nut oil. That poses a severe health risk for some people with allergies.
Fish is another big source of food fraud. Oceana.org found that 39 percent of seafood in NYC alone was mislabeled. A lot of fancy fish you're buying could actually be a cheap, bottom-feeding substitute like Escolar instead of Tuna steak. The danger is that Escolar contains indigestible esters that can cause food poisoning and other shitty side effects (pun intended).
As for ground meat, you might be getting a mystery animal in your marked package. Remember the horse meat scandal in England? Lucky for the US, meat substitution is not as common here.
Another upsetting one is milk. Never use powdered milk, especially if it’s from China. Worse than drinking a mix of various livestock milk (as in, not just cow), some powdered milks can contain chemicals like melamine, urea, and detergent.
Far less terrifying is the wide-spread fruit juice fraud. Beyond various companies claiming unproven health benefits on the labels, a lot of juice companies will claim the product is “100 percent juice." The trouble is, that bottle of juice is probably 100 percent juice, but it’s not straight grapefruit, pomegranate, orange, or what have you. It’s probably cut with something cheap and sugary, like apple juice. Some juices even contain clouding agents to make them look “fresh squeezed.” No thanks.
You probably already knew about honey and food fraud, but it’s one of the worst offenders. Those plastic bears are loaded with additives like high fructose corn syrup, so just stick to your local apiaries.
Coffee is another common one because it’s easy to hide other brown things, like twigs, in coffee grounds. Ever wonder why your pre-ground coffee has a particularly earthy taste? Do yourself a favor and buy whole beans.
Ground black pepper is another easy way to dupe consumers, so buy whole peppercorns and a grinder and do it yourself. Freshly ground pepper tastes better anyways.
The next thing you should be scrutinizing is your vanilla extract. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, so it’s not surprising that the extract is made up of vanillin instead. While vanillin is a naturally occurring compound, most commercially sold bottles of extract synthesize it in a lab for cheap.
Cinnamon is either made from the bark of Ceylon or Cassia. We’re more familiar with the cheaper, spicier Cassia, but either way it yields a fine, brown spice that is easily faked with coffee husks. So make sure you read the label.
Finally, the most predictable victim of food fraud is your bottle of wine. Fraudulent wine mostly comes from cheap wine being falsely labeled as something much nicer, and it has cost the US wine business about $250 million. So seek out your local wine purveyor or buy straight from a trusted vineyard.
Stay safe out there, and read labels carefully.