Food fakes

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Health / Myths

We’re all aware of fake watches, sunglasses and handbags. But what about fake food? Counterfeit food is more common than you might think.

Real or diluted honey? Image credit PollyDot via Pixabay

Fishy business

It’s estimated the fake food industry is worth more than US$40 billion each year. Seafood, coffee and oils are some of the foods most likely to be counterfeited, but it doesn’t end there.

You may remember the ‘horsegate’ crisis of 2013 when it was discovered some ‘beef’ for sale in Europe actually came from horses.

Australian Consumer Organisation CHOICE analysed dry oregano samples from 12 different brands and found only five were 100% oregano. In the other seven brands, ingredients other than oregano made up between 50% and 90% of what was in the packet.

In 2006, chemical analysis showed more than half of 44 samples of supposedly premium Spanish saffron actually originated in other countries such as Iran and India.

In terms of seafood, a 2016 investigation by conservation group Oceana found one in five of the over 25,000 samples tested globally was mislabeled. DNA testing of the fish samples exposed seafood fraud on every continent (except Antarctica). Mostly, it’s cheap fish being passed off as more expensive ones. Eighteen different kinds of high-value fish all turned out to be no more than farmed Asian catfish. Fish labelled as snapper and tuna are the most likely to be fake. Ninety-eight percent of the 70-odd tuna dishes which Oceana tested in Brussels restaurants were not real tuna.

Oils ain’t oils

Stories of oil tampering go back to antiquity. There are records from the twenty-fourth century B.C. of the King’s inspectors touring olive mills on the lookout for dodgy practices.

These days, the words “Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ are associated with fakery almost as much as the real deal. We know olives often come from Spain, Morocco, Syria or Turkey and are initially processed in those countries. This oil is trucked to Italy so it can be legally sold with the label ‘Packed in Italy’ or ‘Imported from Italy’.

Not only is the oil not of Italian origin, but in many instances, it is diluted with cheaper oils. In some cases, the oil for sale contains no olive oil at all: instead, flavour and colour are simply added to cheap vegetable oil. The mafia is known to be behind at least some of these crimes.

Sophisticated chemical techniques can reasonably reliably distinguish between olive oil and other vegetable oils. But it turns out one of the best ways to know whether olive oil is pure or not is to teach people to determine the quality of the oil by smell and taste. A small group of police have been trained for this work – not a bad day job.

If you’re not too fussed about oil but care a lot about your coffee, avoid ground coffee. A variety of fillers have been detected by chemical analysis, including maize, soybeans, sugar, rice, beans, and even twigs. After roasting and grinding, it’s impossible to spot these additions.

Pollen to the rescue

Honey is another food well known to those who investigate food fraud. So-called honey is often diluted with high fructose corn and other grain syrups. Or highly processed honey is sold as high quality, unrefined honey. You can’t easily tell the difference between ‘real’ and heavily diluted honey by sight which makes it very vulnerable to fraud.

But there is help at hand in the form of pollen grains. All honey includes pollen grains. These grains are tiny: one grain is somewhere between ten and 50 thousandths of a millimetre across.

But if you’ve got a good microscope and you know what you’re looking for, you can tell which plant a pollen grain comes from. That means you know two things. First: where the bees that made the honey have been feeding. Second: whether the honey has been diluted with grain syrup.

In Australia, almost all honey contains pollen from Eucalypt trees. Which is useful to know, but bees in a variety of other countries also feed on these trees. For example, in Spain, Italy, China and Brazil. So just knowing there are Eucalypt pollen grains in honey doesn’t prove it’s Australian.

But research published earlier this year showed Australian honey also includes the pollen of many other native Australian plants. Meaning it’s possible to show which honey is authentically Australian, and which isn’t.

The moral of the story is to read ingredient lists carefully and grow your own food, or buy it directly from local producers whenever you can. One final comment on food fraud: if whisky is your thing, you’re in luck. Food writer Larry Olmsted, who has spent years investigating counterfeit food says:

Scotch whisky is the single most reliable and protected foodstuff on earth.

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  1. I remember the news about the oregano scam. I must admit I was gob smacked. Of all the things to ‘fake’ I would have thought oregano is so low cost (grows like a weed at home), that it seemed incredulous that other ingredients (olive leaves from memory) were being substituted. Great article

    • Thanks Marti. I was really surprised about the oregano too. There are so many other herbs/ spices that seem so much more vulnerable to tampering!

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