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In the Shopping Cart

Here are some common examples of food frauds and fakes you could come into contact with at grocery stores around the world.

Illustration: Rose Garrett / Modern Farmer

Food fraud is the act of misrepresenting or adulterating a food product, usually for financial gain. Worldwide, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. The list below details some of the foods that are most frequently targeted for this kind of deception.

* = accepted legal substitution/imitation

Cheese

There are two main types of cheese fraud—cheese degraded with other ingredients not listed on the label and labeling cheese by the wrong name. Like other specialty products such as champagne, some cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Emmental are given a protected designation of origin (PDO). A PDO means that a product is only legitimate if it comes from a certain region. Some cheesemakers are trying to fight regional misrepresentation through innovative methods, such as digital tracking.

Cheese can also be adulterated with other ingredients. In 2016, the president of Castle Cheese was found guilty of selling parmesan cheese containing non-cheese elements. Bloomberg conducted an investigation into shredded parmesan sold in stores and found evidence of cellulose in several different brands. Cellulose is plant fiber, meaning it can be derived from many different sources. It won’t really harm you, but it’s not cheese. 

Fish

Fraud is rampant in the seafood industry because of the often global nature of the market and the ease with which one species can be passed off as something else. This also makes it difficult to know where along the supply chain the mislabeling is taking place. An undergraduate class at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill collected samples of fish sold as red snapper from grocery stores and restaurants in the counties surrounding the university and found that 90 percent were actually not red snapper at all but often vermilion snapper or tilapia. These fish sell for a lower price point. Other examples of fish commonly mislabeled are tuna, halibut and sea bass.

Honey

Honey is one of the most commonly adulterated foods in the world, and can be diluted with sucrose syrup of some kind (such as corn syrup or sugar beet). In 2022, the FDA conducted a test and found that 10 percent of imported honey samples were adulterated in some way. An EU investigation the same year found that 46 percent of the imported honey samples tested were suspicious and warranted further testing.

Imitation crab*

As its name suggests, imitation crab does not pretend to be authentic crab. Imitation crab is made from surimi. Surimi is a paste made of fish (often pollock) and sometimes other additives such as flavorings, egg whites and sugar. In the US, it’s commonly found in the California roll, although, in Japan, it’s used for a number of dishes. There’s no reason to avoid eating surimi, unless you have an allergy to one of its ingredients. On packaging and at restaurants, it should be clear that imitation crab is not, in fact, crab.

Juice

Popular fruit juices such as apple juice and pomegranate juice can be adulterated or diluted to cut costs. This can be done using other sweeteners, water or cheaper juices. Juice-to-juice adulteration is difficult to detect. According to research published in the US National Library of Medicine, grape juice is a common adulterant because it is low in cost. A noteworthy instance of juice adulteration was in 1989, when top officials of Bodine’s Inc., in Chicago, were charged with diluting their 100-percent pure orange juice concentrate with many other substances, including beet sugar and corn sugar.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup—produced by boiling maple tree sap—is a frequent target of adulteration, meaning it has been diluted or mixed with another sweetener. Sugar or corn syrups such as Log Cabin or Mrs. Butterworth’s are common on the market as cheaper alternatives, and they are completely legal. But there have been instances of sugar syrups passed off as authentic maple syrup, driving up the price of the product. In response to this, researchers at the University of Guelph have been working on “fluorescent fingerprinting,” which means using ultraviolet light to determine the chemical composition of syrup and detect the presence of adulterants. 

Olive oil

Olive oil is vulnerable to both outright fraud as well as impurities. There have been multiple cases of olive oil being diluted with less expensive oils in order to cut costs. Additionally, a 2010 UC Davis study found that many grocery store olive oil brands sold in the US did not meet the sensory standards to be considered “extra virgin,” even though they were labeled as such.

Spices

Expensive spices are sometimes cut with additives or enhanced with dyes. Examples include the use of potato starch to bulk up spices such as turmeric, ginger or paprika. Saffron, one of the most expensive spices, can be adulterated with any number of other fibers and filaments. In one notable example, 11 individuals were arrested in Spain in 2022 for engaging in saffron fraud valued at three million euros after they were caught passing off pulverized gardenia as saffron

Sushi wasabi*

True wasabi is made from grating the stem of the Wasabia Japonica plant. This fresh-grated wasabi is often different from the green paste you may find in many sushi restaurants, however. Nearly all of the wasabi found in stores and restaurants in the US is fake, made from horseradish and other additives, and made green with food coloring.

Vanilla*

When it comes to baking and sweets, vanilla is a common flavor profile. But less than one percent of the vanilla flavoring on the market actually comes from the true vanilla orchid. Instead, it is made using synthetic vanillin, often made from petrochemicals. Taste-wise, many find vanillin suitable for baking purposes, and it is a more economical option than the expensive true vanilla. However, if you prefer authentic vanilla, you can always purchase the pods yourself and make vanilla extract at home.

Milk

Typically, milk fraud occurs when milk is diluted with water for economic gain. In one incident in 2021, an Italian tanker truck transporting buffalo milk was found to have an additional compartment for water, for the purposes of diluting the product. Adulterants and additives in milk and milk products can also have a harmful effect on human health. In 2008 in China, six babies died after consuming infant formula containing melamine—a compound used in the production of fertilizer, and 300,000 babies were sickened.

This story is part of ‘Phonies, Fakes and Food Fraud’, a special Modern Farmer series. See the full series here.

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Alicia Cotilla
8 months ago

As a food educator, most items here did not surprise but a few left me speechless. Corporate greed, shame on them.
Thanks for the great info. Would love more depth!

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