Buyer Beware: 6 Fake Foods You Shouldn’t Buy at the Grocery Store
I’ve suspected for a while now that the “extra-virgin” olive oil I’ve been buying for $8 at the grocery store isn’t totally legit. It’s yellow without a hint of green (the greenish tint is standard for pure olive oils), can sometimes turn bitter, and doesn’t mention the region where the olives were grown on the bottle. My budget is often more important than making sure I’m purchasing the purest items, so I’m not about to split hairs. I don’t mind so much if the oil isn’t actually from Italy, but it would be nice if the oil I’m buying is actually extra-virgin, or at least comes from olives — not soybeans, nuts, or cheap vegetable fillers.
Since olive oil is notoriously one of the healthiest fats out there, it’s soared in popularity in the United States in recent years. Consumption in the U.S. increased from 209,000 metric tons in 2000 to an estimated 317,000 metric tons in 2015 — a 52% increase. Not surprisingly, most people expect their extra-version oils to come from Italy, the country that’s renowned for its olive oil production.
Unfortunately, many olive oils that say they’re from Italy are imported from elsewhere. While that’s technically an issue, the bigger grievance is that many oils labeled “extra-virgin” don’t actually qualify for that distinction. To make matters worse, several popular brands in the U.S. have been accused of cutting their premium oils with cheaper fillers like vegetable or nut oils — sometimes filling entire bottles without a drop of the real thing.
Though olive oil is one of the more easily counterfeited food items in the grocery store, it’s definitely not the only one. Here are six of the most commonly faked items, and how to spot whether you’re buying the real thing.
1. Olive oil
A bit more on this tricky cooking staple: Olive oil fraud has been around for centuries, dating back to at least the Roman Empire, as one New Yorker article explains. Since then, it’s involved everyone from Mafia crime bosses and bribed customs officials to regional farmers trying to keep up with demand. However, with updates to chemistry and a ballooning food manufacturing industry, that fraud has become easier to pull off, and thus more rampant.
What’s more, the Food & Drug Administration has a lot on its plate, and prioritizes cases of potentially harmful foods instead of consumers getting ripped off by counterfeit labels. “My experience over a period of some fifty years suggests that we can always expect adulteration and mislabelling of olive-oil products in the absence of surveillance by official sources,” David Firestone, an FDA chemist who was the agency’s olive-oil specialist from the mid-sixties to 1999, told The New Yorker.
One analysis by U.C. Davis of several popular U.S. brands of olive oil found that 73% of the samples taken failed the sensory standards for extra-virgin olive oils. Some stateside brands like California Olive Ranch performed well, but the imported stuff (supposedly from Italy) didn’t pass muster. Sadly, their analysis included brands like Bertolli, Colavita, and Pompeian. It’s worth noting that this particular study was based primarily on taste testing, and attempts to reproduce the results have not yielded consistent findings. [Update, 11/9/2016: An earlier version of this article did not clarify that the U.C. Davis analysis was based primarily on taste testing and other attempts to reproduce the study’s results have not yielded consistent results.]
Consumers in the U.S. aren’t the only ones getting duped. 60 Minutes reported that about half of the oils sold in Italy might not be truly extra-virgin, or totally from olives grown in Italy. In the U.S., 75-80% of the olive oils might not have completely truthful labels or contain pure extra-virgin olive oil inside.
If you’re looking for the real deal, look for a harvest date on the bottle, which indicates a time frame for when the olives were actually pressed. If you want the quality Italian stuff, look also for oils produced in Sicily or Puglia, which are known for their olive oil production and have stricter export regulations. California olive oils will tend to be cheaper, but price will still be a tell-tale sign for weeding out the fake Italian stuff. “If you’re paying seven bucks or eight bucks for a bottle of Italian extra virgin olive oil,” one expert told 60 Minutes, “it’s probably not Italian extra-virgin.”
Honey is one of the best natural sweeteners available, but the stuff you’re buying at the grocery store might not be directly from a hive. One report from Food Safety News found that many of the store brands you buy are filtered to take the pollen out, which makes it impossible to verify if the stuff you’re eating is actually from legitimate sources.
One of the reasons for this could be to import honey from potentially unsafe or sub-par sources, with most U.S. and Canadian apiarists pointing to China as the main culprit. That honey can contain antibiotics and other unknown additives, as well as be diluted with other syrups that aren’t actually pure honey.
By some estimates, up to 75% of the honey available in grocery stores isn’t actually honey. So how can you tell if the honey you purchase is the real thing, without any additives? Bee America offers several tests to try. One includes spreading the honey on a piece of bread, and allowing it to rest for a few minutes. Real honey will become crystallized and crunchy on top, while the fake stuff will simply soak into the bread and make it soggy. For another test, drop a teaspoon of honey into a glass of water. Real honey will need to be stirred in order to mix with the water, while the counterfeit goo will begin to dissolve without stirring.
If you want the truly pure honey, purchase it from a farmer’s market, co-op, or whole foods store like Trader Joe’s. When Food Safety News tested samples from those sources, the honey checked out. If you’re buying from a grocery store, organic varieties — often from Brazil — are the most likely to be the real deal.
If you haven’t noticed the trend by now, the frequently-faked food items are often the ones that are also the most expensive in their pure forms. If you think you’ve found some spectacular deal on a store-brand luxury item, you might want to look a little closer.
That same principle applies to many spices. Saffron in particular is a labor-intensive spice to harvest, meaning it also costs more to purchase. A number of other plants can be substituted for the threads of the spice, including marigold flowers, turmeric, dyed onions, and even colored grass. Try flavoring your soup or rice with a bunch of weeds, and see how flavorful it actually is.
As Lifehacker points out, the unfortunate reality is that many of the most expensive spices are imported to the U.S., which makes it harder to regulate how they’re harvested or packaged. Black peppercorns and paprika are also popular spices for fraud, since they can easily be mixed with other ground seeds, flowers, or plant stems to dilute the amount of precious spices in each container.
To get the real thing, buy your spices whole and ground them up yourself. Lifehacker also suggests making those purchases through reputable online sellers or local dealers who specialize in bulk spices.
You thought you were doing a good thing by eating your seafood at least twice per week: And the health benefits still stand. However, one investigation by Oceana found that 33% of seafood samples it tested from the U.S. were mislabeled, with a higher fraud rate when the fish was a more expensive kind like red snapper, tuna, and grouper. It’s called “species substitution,” and it means you could be paying high prices for farmed tilapia.
It’s pretty much impossible to tell the exact breed of fish based on a fillet in front of you at the grocery store — even for experts. However, using common sense when you’re buying seafood can help you detect the obvious forms of fraud. Out of season “fresh” wild Alaskan salmon during the winter months is likely a sham, the Environmental Defense Fund points out as an example. The best case here is that it was frozen; the worst cases are that it was farmed or not salmon at all.
The EDF provides some additional tips for ferreting out fraud. If you have questions, ask them of the grocery store attendant or your fishmonger. If they can’t answer them, it might be best to look elsewhere for your tuna steaks.
5. Parmesan cheese
We go back to Italy for the next commonly counterfeited food item. Purists will tell you that 100% Parmesan cheese — even if it’s coming in a bottle from Kraft — should technically originate from the Parma region in Italy. It is also technically supposed to come from cows that have not been feed fermented grasses and grains called “silage,” which can change the flavor and aging process of the cheese.
Parmesan output in the U.S. is at an estimated 336 million pounds per year, so it’s safe to say it’s a booming product. However, one importer of real Parmesan cheese, Neal Schuman, estimates that 20% of the Parmesan that’s supposedly 100% real isn’t labeled correctly. According to Bloomberg, that amount is equal to $375 million in sales a year. Lifehacker reports that there isn’t actually any Parmesan cheese in the Market Pantry version sold at Target, but rather cheaper alternatives. The Always Save and Best Choice brands, sold in various stores around the country, had a similar problem.
Many people might not care if their grated cheese is from a specific region, or is made from the correct kind of milk. However, what about if it’s not cheese at all? The American Chemical Society produced a video that explains that many Parmesan distributors use cheaper forms of cheese and additives like cellulose to fill those bottles of grated, “100% real cheese.” Bloomberg tested various samples of grated cheeses, and found up to 8.8% cellulose in brands from stores like Jewel-Osco and Walmart.
Cellulose is a safe additive for food, and isn’t necessarily wood pulp, like some publications have claimed. However, it’s also not the cheese you’re paying a premium for. If you want to be sure you’re getting the real thing, buy a wedge of cheese with “Parmigiano-Reggiano” stamped on the rind. That’s a protected designation, and you’re getting the real thing that you can grate at home.
6. Blueberries and other fruits
It’s pretty hard to fake a blueberry or other fruit in the produce section of the grocery store. However, the same isn’t always true when the blue superfood is mixed into muffins, granola bars, and bagels.
Your favorite snack or breakfast foods might have labels covered in pictures of fruit for the allure of healthiness, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily contain fruit. For that, you need to read the ingredients list. Otherwise, those “berries” might actually be blobs of starch, corn syrup, and sugar.
Faked blueberries earned a lot of attention several years ago, but the practice is still happening. A recently inspected ingredients list of Kellogg’s Special K Fruit & Yogurt cereal, for example, contains 2% or less of dried apples, but none of the berries shown on the front of the box. It also contains blue dye — reportedly a telltale sign that the “fruit” you’re eating didn’t necessarily come from a farm somewhere.