Real or Fake Food? That is the Question!
By Prof. Mercado, EdD, CDN
“Fake Food” probably impacts your life and you don’t even know it. Food fraud is when a manufacturer intentionally misleads the consumer into thinking they are buying food different (usually better) than the actual product they are getting—the result a $50 billion annual industry in the U.S.
There’s a general impression that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is policing and regulating food fraud, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The FDA regulates how products can be labeled based on their ingredients, making sure it’s accurate, but they don’t dedicate many resources to the integrity of the foods you eat every day. The most common offenders are: Parmesan cheese cut with wood pulp, imitation Kobe beef, extra-virgin olive oil blended with vegetable oils, honey diluted with corn syrup and water, dried spices “extended” with chopped weeds and lobster rolls filled with langostino and cheap fish.
What we think is a 100% Parmesan cheese is often cut with “cellulose” which is an anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp; this is especially true in the pre-grated options. The FDA allows adding up to 4% of “cellulose” but most companies add far more to increase volume and boost their profit. The “real” Parmesan cheese is a pricy delicacy from Parma-Reggio, an area in Italy, and is called Parmigiano-Reggiano—look for the “Made in Italy” stamp and the PDO or DOP seal.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is one of the most commonly “faked foods” in the U.S. About 60-90% of the olive oils in grocery stores and restaurants are adulterated with oils that don’t have the same health benefits as EVOO. It is diluted with a cheap soybean or peanut oil or mixed with lower-grade olive oil that’s been chemically refined, which can be problematic for those with allergies. The best way to tell if your EVOO is the real deal is to taste it— it should have a fruity and then a peppery taste.
The common assumption is that the best olive oil is from Italy, but there’s ample room for deception along the production chain as olive oil extracted in one country is often shipped to another, usually Italy, and then blended with olive oils from yet more places before being bottled and shipped off again. Never buy anything marketed as light, virgin, pure or blend, stick to Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Also, ignore the “best by” and “bottled on” dates because they don’t mean much, instead look for the “pressed on” or “harvest” date. Lastly, look for a certification seal like the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Italy’s DOP, or the COOC from the California Olive Oil Council for California-made oils.
Coffee shortages caused by climate change have increased the likelihood that the coffee grounds we use have “fillers” like wheat, soybean, brown sugar, barley, corn, seeds, chickpeas, and even sticks, twigs, cereal, starch or acai seeds. This practice could cause allergic reactions in people with sensitivities to these undeclared fillers, like the gluten in wheat. Another common practice is repackaging cheaper coffee into bags labeled Hawaiian Kona coffee, which is one of the most famous gourmet coffees in the world. When the coffee is ground up it’s hard to tell if there are foreign ingredients in it, making powdered instant coffee the most adulterated of all. It is best to buy the beans and grind it yourselves.
Finally, let’s discuss fish. Between 2015 and 2017, according to records from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, 51 administrative complaints were filed against a local restaurant group. The violations involve the sale of one type of fish with a different label, as when red snapper or grouper is subsisted with cheaper, less regulated ones like Asian “farmed” catfish or tilapia. Another example is escolar, a fish found in many sushi restaurants that contains a naturally occurring toxin that acts as a laxative in some people. It’s been labeled a toxic fish in Japan and banned since the 70s and is on the FDA’s “do-not-eat list” for sensitive groups such as children and pregnant women. Rule of thumb: if the fish is cheap or you don’t see it displayed whole, there’s a good chance it’s an impostor.
If you want to avoid being shortchanged by-products that allege to be something they really aren’t, you need to get knowledgeable in the topic, read labels accurately and stop assuming that the government agencies have your back
…or your stomach!