Did You Know?
The sale of counterfeit food and consumer products is a multibillion-dollar global issue. As estimated by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, Americans spend around $10 billion to $15 billion each year on fake food products.
Despite the strict regulations laid down by the US Food and Drug Administration, counterfeiting still continues to grow at an alarming rate with many manufacturers selling fake food products to the consumers. This is further fueled by the rising prices of food and raw materials. Consumers find it difficult to identify the difference between counterfeit products and real products because of their well-designed and high-quality packaging. Sometimes, the packaging of counterfeit products is also better than the real ones, and this is what most buyers fall prey to.
Basically, food can be counterfeited in two different ways, the first being the addition of cheap ingredients as fillers without the knowledge of the consumers, and the other being the misinterpretation of food or selling cheap quality products under the labels of more expensive ones. Providing false or misleading information about a product is another instance of counterfeiting. Let's find out which food products are more likely to be counterfeited, and how it is done.
Most Common Counterfeit Food Products
Olive oil, which is highly-prized not only for its potential health benefits but also for its flavor and versatility of use, is perhaps one of the most common counterfeit food products. According to a study conducted by the Michigan State University's Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program, about 17% of counterfeit food product cases involve olive oil.
So what consumers think as extra-virgin olive oil, could be either regular olive oil or a cheaper variety, or olive oil diluted with soybean or peanut oil. It has also been found that olive oils that are sold in the market under the label 'extra-virgin olive oil' fail to meet international standards, and actually contain up to 90% soybean oil. In 2008, it was reported that the US food safety officers seized more than 10,000 cases of counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil from some warehouses in New York and New Jersey.
Milk is another commonly adulterated food item. According to a study carried out by the Michigan State University's Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program, diluted milk accounts for about 14% of the counterfeit food cases. However, adulteration of milk is not limited to dilution alone, as there have been instances of substances like melamine being added to milk.
Melamine is added to milk to increase its protein content, and thus mask the adulteration. This adulterant was discovered in milk imported from China, consumption of which caused 900 American infants to be hospitalized with kidney problems, out of which six cases resulted in death. Apart from melamine, starch, caustic soda, formaldehyde, and urea are other substances that are used to adulterate milk.
Honey, one of the oldest sweeteners of the world cherished for its taste and medicinal properties, is another most easily faked food product. Honey laundering got worldwide attention when dangerous antibiotics were found in honey imported from China in 2002. To fake the good taste of honey, manufacturers mixed corn-based syrups with the antibiotic-contaminated honey.
Other adulterants that are used to dilute honey are cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. However, with the help of an isotope, it is possible for the FDA to identify these adulterants without much difficulty. This has led to the counterfeiters replacing these adulterants with beet sugar, which is quite difficult to detect. It is estimated that fake honey accounts for about 7% of the food fraud cases.
Sometimes, marigold and calendula flowers dyed with food colors are used to adulterate saffron. Even corn silk, pomegranate fibers, red-dyed silk fibers, and the yellow stamens of saffron crocus can be passed off as saffron. Powdered saffron is particularly vulnerable to adulteration with turmeric powder and paprika used as fillers.
Most of us are aware of the problem of contamination of fish with toxic mercury, and hence we exercise utmost caution while buying them. However, not many of us know about the various types of 'seafood fraud', and so many times we end up buying fish sold under the labels of more expensive ones. In fact, fish is one of the most common mislabeled food items that American consumers buy. Selling farmed salmon as wild salmon and catfish as grouper are some examples of fish counterfeiting.
Wild salmon are quite rare and they get their bright color from the plankton they eat. Farmed salmon, on the other hand, get their color from the dyed food pellets given to them. So, when you cook wild salmon, they retain their color, while the color of farmed salmon leaks out. Apart from salmon, tuna and snappers are the other popular mislabeled fish in the United States. In 2007, the University of North Carolina reported that about 77% of fish being sold as red snappers were actually tilapia.
The pricey pomegranate juice, much touted for its anti-aging properties and heart health benefits, was once a rare sight in the supermarkets. Today it is easily available in the market, but often mixed with other fruit juices. So what is claimed as 100% pomegranate juice could be the fake juice diluted with less expensive grape or pear juice.
Even sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are used to dilute pomegranate juice, just to increase the profit margin. Orange juice, apple juice, and lemon juice are other adulterated fruit juices that are widely available in the market. In fact, it is estimated that fake fruit juices constitute about 2 to 4% of counterfeit food items.
The exotic truffle oil, drizzled over your favorite pizza or pasta, is far from being made from actual truffles. Most of the commercially available truffle oils are synthetically produced by mixing olive oil or grape seed oil with thioether or 2,4- dithiapentane, a petroleum-based flavoring agent that resembles the flavor or aroma of truffles.
The truffle oil basically serves as a less expensive substitute for truffles, as the real ones are beyond the reach of common people due to their exorbitant prices.
Coffee and Tea
Both ground tea and coffee can be easily adulterated with fillers. Coffee husk, roasted corn, chicory powder, burned sugar, roasted date seed, roasted soybean, starch, and maltodextrin are some substances that are used as fillers in ground coffee powder. Similarly, fillers like fern leaves, lawn grass, and even colored sand and sawdust can be used for making adulterated tea.
When it comes to fake or fraudulent wines, it mainly involves refilling the empty bottles of expensive wines with less expensive vintages, or using counterfeit labels of expensive wines to sell cheap and poor quality wines. This problem is particularly rampant in China, Europe, and the United States, which has compelled the auction house Christie's to break the empty bottles of wine after wine tasting, in an attempt to prevent their entry into the black market.
One famous instance of wine fraud is the Hardy Rodenstock case. Hardy Rodenstock is famous as a wine collector, and also for arranging extravagant wine tastings. But in 1992, a German court found that he had offered adulterated wine for sale. The case was, however, settled out of court. Wine is commonly adulterated with sweeteners, juices, and coloring agents like elderberry juice.
A few Other Counterfeit Products
Apart from those mentioned above, a few other food products that can be easily adulterated are:
Though counterfeiting exists for a wide range of products, the case of food counterfeiting is different, basically due to the health risks associated with it. Moreover, it is really difficult to identify fake food products from the real ones. Certain measures, like making purchases from trusted local farm markets, acquiring detailed information about the product you are buying regarding how it looks and how much it should cost, can help you stay away from fraud or fake food and beverages to a great extent. Be wary of products that are offered at a much lower price, as they may have a high probability of being fake. Products offered by big brands are less likely to be counterfeited, as they may lose their reputation in the market, if caught for this act.