Food Fraud: What Are You Really Eating?
May 04, 2013
By Dr. Mercola
When you order sushi at your favorite restaurant or pick up a pound of coffee from your local supermarket, you assume you’re getting the red snapper or Columbian beans as stated on the menu or label.
But not so fast. A growing number of cases of “food fraud” are occurring in the United States, such that you may not be able to tell what you’re really eating just by looking at the label.
Worse still, most of these cases are not highly publicized incidents like the recent scandal of UK supermarkets selling “beef” burgers that actually contained horse and pig meat. Instead, they’re ongoing cases of blatant misrepresentation among some incredibly common foods.
What Is Food Fraud?
Food fraud, defined as “the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain,”1 is the focus of the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention's (USP) Food Fraud Database,2 which already has more than 1,300 records of food fraud published from 1980 to 2010.
A recent update, which added in cases from 2011 and 2012, increased the number of records by 60 percent, or nearly 800 new records, and includes some foods you very well may eat every day, like olive oil, honey, seafood and orange juice.
In some cases, the foods were diluted with ingredients not listed on the label. In others, the food was something entirely different than it claimed to be.
Still others contained undisclosed “clouding agents,” including the cancer-causing, reproductive-system-damaging plasticizer Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), which was added to fruit juices in order to make them appear freshly squeezed. USP found that 877 food products from 315 different companies contained fake clouding agents.
In every case, the food fraud revealed that what you think you’re eating may be far from reality, and the manipulation of food and food ingredients may be far more widespread than anyone realized. Dr. Jeffrey Moore, senior scientific liaison for USP, explained:3
"While food fraud has been around for centuries, with a handful of notorious cases well documented, we suspect that what we know about the topic is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The 10 Most Common Fraudulent Foods
1. Olive Oil
Even “extra virgin” olive oil is often diluted with other less expensive oils, including hazelnut, soybean, corn, sunflower, palm, sesame, grape seed and walnut.
Milk was found to contain vegetable oil, whey, caustic soda, cane sugar, detergent and even toxic compounds like melamine and formaldehyde.
Honey is often not “honey” but instead a mix of high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose syrup, invert beet sugar, water and essential oils.
It’s the world’s most expensive spice, but it often contains adulterants such as glycerin, sandalwood dust, tartrazine (yellow dye), barium sulfate, borax, marigold flowers and even colored corn strings.
5. Orange Juice
Lemon juice, sugar water, paprika extract, marigold flower extract, and a synthetic sugar/acid mixture may all be lurking in your favorite orange juice.
Coffee, whether ground or instant, is a likely source of hidden “ingredients” like roasted corn, ground parchment, barley, coffee twigs, potato flower, malt, chicory and caramel.
7. Apple Juice
This childhood favorite may contain corn syrup, raisin sweetener, malic acid, beet sugar and other juices, such as grape, pineapple, pear and fig.
Hiding inside your tea bag may be sand, sawdust, starch, China clay, used tea leaves and color additives. Some tea bags, meanwhile, are made with plastic, such as nylon, thermoplastic, PVC or polypropylene. While these plastics have high melting points, the temperature at which the molecules in polymers begin to break down is always lower than the melting point, which could allow the bags to leach compounds of unknown health hazards into your tea when steeped in boiling water.
Even paper tea bags are frequently treated with epichlorophydrin, which hydrolyzes to 3-MCPD when contact with water occurs. 3-MCPD is a carcinogen associated with food processing that has also been implicated in infertility and suppressed immune function.
Seafood fraud is actually very widespread, as according to the nonprofit ocean protection group Oceana,4 nearly 60 percent of fish labeled "tuna" in the US is not actually tuna. A shocking 84 percent of “white tuna” sold in sushi venues was actually escolar, a fish associated with acute and serious digestive effects if you eat just a couple of ounces.
One-third of all fish samples tested across the US were found to be mislabeled, substituted for cheaper, less desirable and/or more readily available fish varieties. For instance, 87 percent of fish sold as snapper was actually some other type of fish, and the USP found that monkfish was sometimes actually puffer fish, which can also cause poisoning.
10. Black Pepper
This spice is often adulterated with juniper berries, papaya seeds, starch, buckwheat flour and millet seeds. Other foods that made frequent appearances in the fraudulent food database include:
Reading Food Labels Is No Longer Enough to Ensure Healthful Food
It seems quite clear at this point that food fraud is on the rise, and while many have started reading food labels, those labels are increasingly being found to be less than truthful. Even if your food is not being illegally diluted with undisclosed adulterants (or being misrepresented as a different food entirely), many corporations hire lawyers to carefully craft words that are just barely on the side of being legal. Each of the following label items are often used in deceptive ways that may lead you to buy a product you'd otherwise avoid:
- Vitamin and mineral claims
- The "All Natural" label
- The "Organic" label
- Misleading nutritional facts
- Dangerous ingredients not required to be listed on any food label
For instance, labels like "all-natural" and "organic" can also be sorely misleading. The first means virtually nothing when it comes to processed foods, and the only organic label worth paying attention to is the USDA Organic seal. Nutritional facts, meanwhile, can be off by up to 20 percent before breaking any regulations, and currently you have no way of knowing if a food contains genetically modified ingredients as labeling is not required.
While reading labels on the products you buy is important, when it comes to food, you're far better off limiting or eliminating foods that require extensive labeling or listing of ingredients in the first place. Whole foods – the kind that have little to no labeling at all – are those that will be best for your health as well as least vulnerable to fraud.
Tips for Avoiding Food Fraud and Finding Safe, Healthful Foods
If you value food safety and authenticity, you'll want to get your produce, meat, chickens, eggs and dairy from smaller community farms with free-ranging animals, organically fed and locally marketed. This is the way food has been raised and distributed for centuries ...
The closer your foods are to the way they’re found in nature, and the closer you are to the actual source of your food, the greater your changes of finding pure, unadulterated food for your family. When you buy the bulk of your food from a local farmer or community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, you can get to know the person who is supplying your food and even ask questions about its growing conditions.
This way, when you pick up a gallon of, preferably raw, milk or a jar of honey, you’ll know it’s pure and exactly as it’s being represented. Most people should be able to find a farmer’s market, local farm or CSA in their area (see the infographic below for resources), but in the event you’re still buying some of your food at chain supermarkets, the following tips can help you to find REAL food:
- Choose food in the least processed form possible, such as lemons instead of bottled lemon juice and whole black pepper or coffee beans in lieu of ground
- When buying fish, purchase the whole fish whenever possible, which makes it more difficult to switch species. Also, if the price seems too low, it’s probably because you’re buying a different fish than is actually on the label
- Stick with stores and brands that you know and trust; while not a foolproof strategy, natural food stores generally have a better track record than big box stores or chain supermarkets
If you want to learn more about the types of food fraud that may be impacting foods you commonly eat, you can both search the USP database and report fraud directly at www.foodfraud.org.