The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. In fact, shoppers here are just as likely as shoppers anywhere in the world to succumb to the growing problem of food fraud, cases of unscrupulous food producers adding cheaper ingredients to a product, for instance, cheaper oils rather than olive oil, but advertising it as the real thing. "Food fraud attempts to cheat the market by selling a substandard product and trying to get away with it," says Markus Lipp, senior director of food standards at U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), which recently launched an online database of independently documented food fraud instances.
For a long time, food fraud was mostly associated with expensive foods--there's a lot of opportunity in being able to sell cheaper caviar by selling catfish eggs instead of the real thing--but now, Lipp says his group is seeing more instances of cheap foods, such as fruit juice or rice, succumbing to the problem. "It happens whenever someone sees an opportunity to make money," he says, no matter how much a product costs. So what can you do about it? It takes vigilance and some knowledge about how you might be getting defrauded at the grocery store. Here are some of the most commonly defrauded foods, according to the USP's database at foodfraud.org
Fake-Out: Olive oil is one of the most adulterated foods, says Lipp, particularly extra-virgin olive oil. According to the USP database, products being sold as olive oil have been shown to instead be soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, canola, or palm oil, and in one case, even lard. Some products were olive oil thinned out with these ingredients; others were combinations of those oils with no olive oil present. Particularly dangerous for people with nut allergies, researchers have detected peanut and hazelnut oils marketed as olive oil, too.
Fix It: Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), recommends a few tricks that can reduce (but not eliminate) your chances of buying fake olive oil on his website, truthinoliveoil.com. Look for a harvest date, the name of the producer, and the country of origin on a bottle, all of which give you specific info on who made the oil and where. Also, look for a "DOP" (Protected Designation of Origin) seal on European oils or a state certification, such as the California Olive Oil Council, on oils made in the U.S. Finally, Mueller says that organic olive oils are less susceptible to fraud than conventional.
Fake-Out: Honey, maple syrup, and other sugary sweeteners are easy to fake, says Lipp. "The most desirable feature of these is being sweet," he says, "so it's common for producers to add high-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] or normal household sugar to get that sweetness." Both honey and maple syrup have been thinned out with HFCS, without that ingredient being disclosed on labels. According to investigations by Food Safety News, 75 percent of the honey sold in the U.S. has been so heavily processed that any of the characteristics that define it as honey by federal law, such as the presence of pollen, have been removed. Translation: Some of those bears are filled with what is essentially liquid sugar.
Fix It: Buy your sweeteners close to the source. Farmer's markets allow you to buy maple syrup and honey directly from producers who can vouch for their products. And when that's not an option, buy organic. Food Safety News found that organic honeys tested all contained high pollen counts (the mark of a high-quality product).
Fake-Out: The spice world is fraught with fraud, says Lipp. His database has logged cases of lead being added to paprika, turmeric being bulked up with rice flour, and ground black pepper containing bits of twigs and buckwheat flour. But perhaps the most doctored spice of all is the über-expensive saffron. The prized threads are painstakingly hand-harvested from the stigmata of saffron crocus flowers, some 43,000 of which are required to produce a single pound of the spice. Sometimes, stigmata from other flowers are added to bunches of whole saffron, while powdered saffron is often adulterated with other flowers like marigolds or calendula, or even other spices like turmeric and onion powder. One independent test in the UK revealed that as much as 90 percent of some saffron samples weren't actually saffron.
Fix It: Stick with whole spices that you grind yourself, Lipp says, which allows you to ID any foreign material. As for saffron, you can try finding DOP-certified Spanish saffron, which is the most commonly available form sold in the U.S. It can sell for as much as $25 or more for 1/3-ounce, so if a price seems too good to be true, what's being sold probably isn't actual saffron.
Fake-Out: During the Depression and even before, when times got tough, enterprising coffee drinkers would stretch their expensive java supplies by adding ground-up sweet potatoes, chicory root, or roasted beans. Nowadays, food companies are doing the same--and not telling you. Coffee adulteration is quite common, the USP has found, particularly in ground and instant forms.
Fix It: As with spices, buy your coffee in whole-bean form, or buy whole beans and have them ground at the store or café. It's harder to include adulterants when a kernel of corn or an acorn looks so drastically different from a coffee bean.
Fake-Out: Selling wild Alaskan salmon that's actually farmed Atlantic salmon or caviar that's actually catfish roe isn't uncommon. The USP database has about 60 cases in which fish are being passed off as something else. And it's not just the USP database that has zeroed in on seafood fraud. The nonprofit Oceana has DNA-tested grocery store, restaurant, and sushi bar seafood offerings in cities across the U.S., finding that 31 to 55 percent of the time you aren't getting what you ordered. Sometimes the swaps can be dangerous. In Oceana's most recent tests, "red snapper" was frequently tilefish, a high-mercury fish that pregnant women and children should avoid, and "white tuna" was escolar, a fish that can cause acute gastrointestinal problems.
Fix It: Stick with large national grocery chains for your seafood fix, since they have internal audits that make seafood fraud less likely, and when dining out, stay with land-based proteins. Oceana's seafood-fraud report found that 39 percent of seafood samples purchased at regular restaurants and a whopping 76 percent from sushi restaurants were mislabeled.
Fake-Out: While the USP has uncovered weird instances of rice adulteration--one case involved fake rice made from plastic resin and potato starch--it's basmati rice that's most prone to food fakery. The rice is low yielding, highly susceptible to temperature, and is harvested for only one month every year in the Himalayan foothills, and then it gets aged for nine months before it's sold. So it's not surprising that USP has documented numerous instances in which other varieties of long-grain rice are being mixed in with packages of basmati but advertised as the real thing. An Indian research firm conducted DNA tests on American basmati rice brands and found that only 15 percent of them contained 100-percent basmati rice. While that won't necessarily make you sick, it is a rip-off. The firm estimated that such fraud costs U.S. rice-lovers $15.7 million a year.
Fix It: One UK-based importer of basmati rice, Tilda, has been working with U.S. retailers to help them develop better testing methods, and you can look for Tilda-brand basmati at your grocery store. Or opt for U.S.-grown basmati or "Tex-mati," a variety of long-grain rice crossed with basmati, although neither will be as fragrant as the real thing.
Fake-Out: There's a difference between outright food fraud and deceptive marketing, says Lipp. Unfortunately, fruit juice succumbs to both. His database has logged instances of pomegranate juice being nothing more than water, dye, and sugary flavorings, even though "pomegranate juice" was listed as an ingredient on the label, and lemon juice that turned out to be nothing more than sugar water. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has repeatedly accused juice companies of deceiving consumers with juices that are sold as "Cherry Berry" that in fact contain 0 percent cherry or berry juice, are flavored with artificial flavors, and contain mostly apple or grape juice as cheap fillers. Although all those ingredients are listed on labels, CSPI says that they aren't what people expect when they buy juice, which is often assumed to be a healthier alternative to sodas.
Fix It: Eat your fruit whole, not in juice form. It's hard to pass off an orange as anything but an orange, and eating one provides you with healthy fiber and pulp, which are missing when you drink just the juice.
Fake-Out: Another case of deceptive marketing, Greek yogurt has succumbed to fakery as its popularity has soared in recent years. Rather than making regular yogurt and straining out the whey, which is how real Greek yogurt is made, companies are pushing "Greek-Style" yogurt, which is just regular yogurt with milk solids, pectin, gelatin or other cheap thickening agents added to make it creamier than regular yogurt. The resulting product has less protein than Greek yogurt yet costs about the same.
Fix It: Always check the ingredients panel. Real Greek yogurt contains milk and cultures, nothing more.