Fake ingredients, deceptive labeling, cheaper food substitutes—sounds like something you’d expect from a fast food meal, right? Turns out, you could encounter food fraud with many of the everyday items you toss into your grocery cart.
That’s because inferior—and sometimes unhealthy—ingredients in our food has reached an all-time high, according to researchers at the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). In the last two years, the USP added nearly 800 items to their food fraud database. Everything from lemon juice to olive oil to seafood could be a big phony, based on their findings.
So what exactly is food fraud?
“It’s defined as the dilution or substitution of a food ingredient without the knowledge of the purchaser, typically for economic gain by the manufacturer, so one does not get the quality or quantity that they think they are getting,” explains Markus Lipp, Ph.D., senior director for Food Standards at the USP.
In other words, it’s false advertising at its finest.
The reason manufacturers do this is simple: They can make more money. In some cases, they substitute a cheaper product for what you think you’re buying. In other cases, they add fake—and just to be clear, unlisted—ingredients to make their product look more natural, which is ironic because these additives are anything but the real deal.
Not only do we get ripped off financially, but this faux food could be making us sick. “It’s a real health risk,” says Lipp.
Take milk, for example. There was a major case in 2008 where melamine, a chemical found in nitrogen that is used to make plastics, was added to infant formula in China. That deceptive act resulted in several thousand babies falling ill. This U.S.-banned ingredient was also discovered in dog food, causing hundreds of pets to wind up sick or dead.
Fish is another big culprit. Here, a more expensive species is substituted with a cheaper one. “If you have a whole fish, it’s obviously easier to identify, but if you have a fillet, it can be much more difficult,” explains Lipp. This bait and switch (if you’ll pardon the pun) is not only deceptive, but it could also cause food poisoning, he notes.
Luckily, not all manufacturers are unscrupulous.
"We can rest assured that most of our food is safe,” says Lipp. “However, it’s not the case by accident. This requires the vigilance of the FDA to look out for consumers and make sure products are pure.”
Outside of putting your trust in the FDA, stepping up your consumer smarts is the best way to protect yourself. That means taking a close look at what you’re actually getting, buying from trusted manufacturers (instead of random discount sites online) and opting for whole foods whenever possible.
“If I buy whole black pepper, it comes in pepper kernels,” explains Lipp. “If it is adulterated, I would see that immediately. But if I buy ground black pepper, I may not see it.” That’s because the closer you come to the original product, the easier it is to trust your food and identify any suspicious ingredients.
Another way to guard against food fraud is to tap into your common sense. “If a product looks too good to be true or is too cheap to be true—like extra virgin olive oil at half the price of the others on the shelf—then there’s a chance it has some fraudulent ingredients,” adds Lipp.
Are there certain products that are guiltier than others? Absolutely.
To help you navigate the grocery aisles with more certainty, check out our gallery on the most common food frauds.
This antioxidant-rich juice has been touted as heart-healthy, but it’s also expensive. To get around that, some manufacturers have been caught diluting it with water, sugar or cheaper grape or pear juice. In fact, there have been instances where pomegranate juice doesn’t even have a lot of real juice in it.
Some oils, extra virgin olive oil in particular, have been caught in the food fraud act. They can be diluted or substituted with cheaper oils to mimic the real thing, so you may not be getting what you’re paying for.
Like other fruit juices, lemon juice can be sold as fresh or from concentrate (which can be diluted with water). But even lemon juice labeled as 100 percent pure has been found to contain citric acid. “It’s available as a chemical, and it’s very cheap,” notes Markus Lipp, Ph.D., senior director for Food Standards at the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. “The lemons are the most expensive ingredient, and sometimes only 10 to 30 percent is real juice, so manufacturers make three times as much money this way.”
This expensive spice is frequently reported to be adulterated with cheaper ingredients that are dyed to look like saffron. Not only are you wasting your money, but some of these fraudulent blends may not be fit for human consumption, according to Lipp.
The issue isn’t with whole bean coffee because it’s easier to recognize and know if the beans have proper form and color. “But with ground coffee, it can easily be adulterated and hard to tell what exactly is in that brown powder,” says Lipp. There have been reports of roasted chicory seeds, for example, being used as a filler. This is something that could cause allergies in unsuspecting java junkies.
Would you ever sip tea made from your front lawn? You might be and not even know it, especially if you don’t use loose leaf tea that you can see. According to the USP, tea has been found to contain lawn grass and other fern leaves. Not exactly what we’re hoping for when we curl up with a mug in the morning.
Tuna and other white fish, such as butterfish, have been caught in the “real” food lie. Tuna has been found to contain escolar—a cheaper, oily fish that is banned in Italy and Japan. Escolar has a high content of waxy esters that are likely to cause food poisoning called gempylotoxism or gempylid fish poisoning, according to the USP.
There have been documented incidents in the U.S. of puffer fish being deliberately mislabeled as monkfish to evade import and other restrictions. Not only is this deceptive, but puffer fish can also lead to toxic poisonings.
To make your jam look more natural, manufacturers have been caught adding clouding agents outside the U.S., such as plasticizer Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and other related phthalates, in place of the more expensive palm oil. These banned toxins have been linked to cancer and developmental problems in children.
To make a cheaper product, honey is often adulterated with a lesser quality honey. In some cases, honey has contained other sweeteners such as sucrose, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
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