Faux pas! Food fraud on the rise

Posted at 12:48 PM, Jan 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-23 12:48:05-05

Pour over coffee

By Sarah LeTrent 

(CNN) — If you are what you eat, you might be having an identity crisis.

A new study on food fraud was released Wednesday morning by U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a scientific nonprofit organization that helps set standards for the “quality, safety and benefit” of foods and medicines. The group runs a searchable online database of food fraud reports at and nearly 800 new records were added as part of the study – a 60% increase from last year.

Food fraud, as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the adulteration, dilution or mislabeling of goods. USP further defines food fraud in the study as “the fraudulent addition of nonauthentic substances or removal or replacement of authentic substances without the purchaser’s knowledge for economic gain to the seller.”

The new records show that the most commonly fraudulent products are olive oil, milk, saffron, honey and coffee.

Tea, fish, clouding agents (used in fruit juices, like lemon, to make products look freshly squeezed), maple syrup and spices (turmeric, black pepper and chili pepper) were also top imposters.

Most of the reported food fraud was committed by producers adding fillers (i.e. plant leaves to tea leaves), mixing in less expensive spices with high value spices or watering down liquids. Olive oils were often replaced and/or diluted with cheaper vegetable oils. Clouding agents were found in 877 food products from 315 different companies. Another popular target: Pomegranate juice, often made with grape skins and grape and pear juices.

Tips to combat food fraud

If there’s a “whole” alternative, use it. Buy lemons instead of lemon juice; pomegranates instead of pomegranate juice; loose leaf tea; saffron threads; etc. Also, purchase the whole spice (peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks) and grind/grate it yourself. Buy from reputable sources and brands you trust, including your local farmers market, co-op and natural food store. Know the who, when and where of the product. Don’t buy into the newest health trend.

Food fraud appears more commonly in high-value ingredients that are linked to health benefits and consumers pay a premium for. Beware “white tuna” – it’s often not a member of the tuna family at all. Escolar is commonly marketed as white tuna, super white tuna, butterfish and walu. Escolar is edible – and legal – but the Food and Drug Administration does not encourage its consumption. It includes a waxy substance, called gempylotoxin, that humans can’t digest and can cause purgative effects.

Educate yourself and train your palate. Does it taste, smell and look right? If you’re wary, search online to see if that particular brand has been reported as fraudulent before. Petition the FDA to set standards for the most commonly fraudulent products, like honey and olive oil. 

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