According to estimates, as much as one-third of all “100% Honey” sold in stores contains something other than honey. In this example of “food fraud,” a cheaper substitute ingredient such as high fructose corn syrup or glucose is added to the honey to boost profits.
Unscrupulous food producers have been committing food fraud for some time, but until now, there hasn’t been a public database that compiles all the data surrounding these foodie crimes—an important first step in stopping food fraud.
A new database, which is available at www.foodfraud.org consists of data from over 1,305 cases of food fraud that occurred between 1980 and 2010. The database was created by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a nonprofit scientific organization that develops standards to help ensure the identity, quality and purity of food ingredients, dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals.
Top Ten Adulterated Foods
According to the USP research, below are the most adulterated foods along with a list of the “fake” ingredients found in them.
- Olive Oil – non-olive oils such as corn oil, hazelnut oil and palm oil.
- Milk – whey, bovine milk protein, melamine, and cane sugar.
- Honey – high fructose corn syrup, glucose, and fructose.
- Saffron – sandlewood dust, starch, yellow dye, and gelatin threads.
- Orange Juice – grapefruit juice, marigold flower extract, corn sugar and paprika extract.
- Coffee – chicory, roasted corn, caramel, malt, glucose, leguminous plants and maltodextrins.
- Apple Juice (Tie) – high-fructose corn syrup, raisin sweetener and synthetic malic acid.
- Grape Wine (Tie) – apple juice and a toxic sweet chemical called diethyleneglycol.
- Maple Syrup (Tie) – corn syrup, beet sugar, and cane sugar.
- Vanilla Extract – synthetically-produced vanillin and maltol.
Danger to Food Supply
If you consumed honey that contained corn syrup, you’d probably never know it or suffer any ill effects, but that’s not always the case. There are many notorious examples of food fraud that involved toxic substitute ingredients that claimed many lives and went undiscovered for years.
How could problems go undetected for so long? It’s because current food protection systems are not designed to look for the nearly infinite number of potential adulterants that may show up in the food supply.
Melamine, for example, was considered neither a potential contaminant nor an adulterant in the food supply before the episodes of adulteration of pet food in 2007 and infant formula and other milk products in 2008. Melamine was used as an adulterant to mimic protein as early as 1979, but this remained virtually unknown until 2007. Therefore, testing for melamine was not included in routine quality assurance or quality control analyses.
In some ways food fraud may be more risky than traditional threats to the food supply. The adulterants used in these activities often are unconventional and designed to avoid detection through routine analyses.
The researchers pointed out that food ingredients and additives present a unique risk because they are used in so many food products and often do not have visual or functional properties that enable easy discrimination from other similar ingredients or adulterants throughout the supply chain.
Glycerin, for example, is a sweet, clear, colorless liquid that is difficult to differentiate by sight or smell from other sweet, clear, colorless liquid syrups -- including toxic diethylene glycol, which has been substituted for glycerin with deadly consequences. Diethylene glycol has been fraudulently added to wines, and used as a substitute for glycerin used in pharmaceuticals.
Benefits of Database
The new USP database will help stop food fraud by:
- identifying specific food ingredients and food categories vulnerable to adulteration.
- indicating the types of analytical detection methods used to discover the fraud.
- classifying the type of fraud employed in each case using three categories: replacement, addition or removal.
The authors found 95 percent of food fraud cases involved replacement -- an authentic material replaced partially or completely by another, less expensive substitute.
Unfortunately there’s not a lot consumers can do to protect themselves from food fraud, but here’s a few tips:
- Buy from reputable stores you trust.
- When possible, purchase from major brands.
- When purchasing olive oil, look for quality certifications on labels. (COOC for California oils and IOOC, DOP, DO or HAEPAO for imported oils)
- If it’s an option, consume whole foods rather than processed foods. (For example, purchase coffee beans rather than ground coffee or apples rather than apple sauce.)
- Price can be a good indication as well. If the price looks too cheap for an expensive item like saffron, then there’s a good chance you may not be getting an authentic product.