Counterfeit Foods, and How to Spot Them

May 11, 2016

That Parmesan cheese is actually wood, that honey has corn syrup, and the cake is a lie. There’s no guarantee the food you’re buying at the store is what it says it is, so keep an eye out for these usual suspects if you don’t want to waste your money on fake, inferior products.

The distribution and selling of counterfeit foods is officially known as economically motivated adulteration (EMA), a subcategory of food fraud. EMA can be anything from altering the weight of the product by adding a lower quality ingredient to tampering with the product’s label.

Diluting fruit juice with water, adding chemicals to boost the protein content of a food, and changing the expiration dates on meat labels are all good examples. These acts are illegal, of course, and potential health concerns, but the issue is widespread and hard for the government to control.

In fact, according to the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), an estimated 7% of products in grocery stores nationwide contain fraudulent ingredients. Here are the most common offenders.

Parmesan Cheese

If you pay premium prices for decent Parmesan cheese, you’d think that’s exactly what you’d get. But the FDA has been cracking down on fraudulent Parmesan cheese for years now. In multiple instances, the FDA has found companies shilling “100% real” Parmesan with fillers like wood pulp, cellulose, and super cheap cheddar.

In fact, an FDA analysis suggests there’s no actual Parmesan cheese in the Market Pantry brand 100% grated Parmesan Cheese sold at Target. The same goes for the Always Save and Best Choice brands of 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese sold in 30 different states, which mostly contain mozzarella, white cheddar, and cellulose.

If you want the real deal, Liz Thorpe, author of The Murray’s Cheese Handbook and The Cheese Chronicles, recommends you buy a wedge of cheese from a whole wheel with the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” on the rind:

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a legally protected designation of origin that’s used in Europe only for Italian cheese. The beauty of this cheese is that you can always know that you’re getting the real thing because the name ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’ is burned onto its rind in an unmistakable dotted pattern.

That means hitting up the deli at the supermarket or going to a specialty shop, then grating or shredding the cheese yourself. Also, take note of the price. Parmesan is expensive because it takes a lot of time and a lot of milk to make. If it’s super cheap, that’s a red flag. That goes for everything on this list. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is tampered with in a lot of ways so distributors can make money. As Tom Mueller at The New Yorker explains, fraudsters will dilute olive oil with cheaper oils like vegetable oil, mislabel the olive oil as extra-virgin when it’s not, or lie about the oil’s origin, saying the oil was made in Italy when it’s really a mixed batch of oils from all over the Mediterranean. Major Sergio Tirro of the Italian Carabinieri, and one of the top food fraud investigators in Europe, demonstrated how easy it is to fake olive oil for 60 Minutes.

A little sunflower oil, a few drops of chlorophyll, and a dash of beta-carotene is it all it takes to make a passable fake. In fact, Mueller estimates that as much as 75% of the olive oil in the U.S. is adulterated or mislabeled, and a two-part study from the UC Davis Olive Center suggests that 73% of samples from the five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brands in the U.S.—Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian—failed to meet International Olive Council standards.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do when you’re shopping for olive oil. First, look for a harvest date on the label. Bottles of olive oil without harvest dates may be fraudulent or from extremely old batches that distributors are trying to unload. Second, look for a seal of approval from the local or regional authority where it was bottled.

This type of certification proves the oil is from where it says, and that the product isn’t a mish-mash of different oils. Just because a bottle of olive oil has an Italian flag on it, doesn’t mean it was made there. Also, as Guy Campanile explains on 60 Minutes, check to see if the city of origin is mentioned in addition to the country.

You can easily check to see if that area is known for its olive oil production with a Google search. Lastly, check the label for the olive oil’s cultivars, or type of olives that were used. If they don’t list them on the bottle, that doesn’t bode well for the quality of olive oil inside.

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