Substitution and dilution: the most brazen forms of food identity theft

Posted by
February 5, 2013

As if it wasn’t hard enough to shop for food, a new report out from the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) has found that food fraud is on the rise, with olive oil, fish, milk, spices, honey and coffee the commodities most subject to culinary counterfeiting.  The updated USP database also listed some new items among the top 25 foods most often subject to substitution or dilution, which were shrimp, lemon juice and maple syrup.

The USP, a non-profit organization that establishes standards for foods, supplements and drugs, first launched its Food Fraud Database last spring, compiling 1300 published records of such illicit practices from 1980 to 2010. The new additions, updating the online database by 60 percent, came from reports published over the last two years.

Some of the fakes had added fillers, such as plant material mixed with tea leaves, or cheaper spices in place of more expensive ones, juices such as pomegranate labeled as 100 percent that had been diluted with grape or pear juice, and olive oil diluted with cheaper oils, or in some cases containing no real olive oil at all.

The USP describes “food fraud” as including “deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food…” It can also include misleading statements on packaging, and, of course, “the fraudulent addition of non-authentic substances…for economic gain to the seller.”

The creator of the database, Dr. Jeffery Moore, senior scientific liaison for the USP, said the hope is that “the database can be used as a tool by food manufacturers, regulators, scientists and others worldwide to help achieve a safer food supply.”

Safety is a concern in many of the reports, but particularly in regard to seafood, such as a fish with some nasty side effects called escolar, which is often passed off as white tuna or butterfish. Escolar is banned in Italy and Japan due to the extreme gastrointestinal effects it can produce. (We won’t go into details, but escolar is sometimes called “the ex-lax fish.”)

It’s also likely you may be squirting fake lemon juice on your fake fish. Last spring the National Consumers League (NCL) filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration over four brands of “100 percent lemon juice” that were found to only contain small amounts of the real thing.

NCL found that the brands Natural Lemon, Lira, Lemon Time and Pampa, while all labeled as 100 percent lemon juice, were so diluted with water that they contained only 10 to 35 percent actual lemon. The league has asked the FDA to take action and stop sales of the water-downed products.

To make your fake meal a bogus triple play, how about adding some phony olive oil to the recipe?

A 2010 report by the University of California-Davis Olive Center found that a whopping 69 percent of imported olive oil samples touted as “extra virgin” were actually made from inferior grades. In addition, some of the samples showed signs of oxidization (from age or bad storage), poor quality or adulteration with cheaper, chemically refined oils, such as soy and canola.

Legal food fraud

While the USP database has identified many examples of misrepresented and adulterated food, there’s another kind of food fraud that is actually permitted under current regulations, which we refer to as “loophole labeling.” A prime example is the widespread practice of slapping trans fat-free labels on products that actually contain partially hydrogenated oils, the major source of trans fats (but falling below 0.5 grams, which is legally ‘under the radar’), and foods that say “no MSG” on the label but include other ingredients containing processed free glutamic acid that is essentially the same thing.

Steering clear of loophole labeling, of course, can be done by scrupulously reading the ingredient list. But how do you know when a manufacturer is deliberately mislabeling a product?

The answer is, you  don’t – but there are ways to protect yourself and your family from this most brazen form of food identity theft. One is to avoid unknown, deeply discounted, brands. But the main thing to keep in mind is that the more “whole” a food is, the better. For example, instead of buying lemon juice, buy some actual lemons and squeeze them. Or try using loose tea and grinding whole spices instead of assuming that the packaged varieties are everything they’re cracked up to be.