The 7 Most Common Counterfeit Foods and How to Identify Them
Is the heaping pile of truffle atop your $8 pizza too good to be true? Possibly. Here’s how you can stop fraud foods before you fork out big money for an imposter.
You likely know that a $20 “Michael Kors” bag on a street corner in NYC is far too great a deal to be the authentic specimen. (You do know that, right?) But do you know if your bottle of olive oil is legitimate? Or if you’re actually eating red snapper when a fillet of thin, flaky white fish is delivered to your table?
The answer is likely no. And you wouldn’t be alone.
Indeed counterfeit food—or “economically motivated adulteration” as it’s sometimes formally called—is a real issue in grocery stores, restaurants, and online food stores everywhere. Manufacturers may alter their products by cutting a high-quality food with an inferior product (olive oil, for example). They may use fancy language on the label to throw you for a loop (truffle oil, perhaps). They may also just outright lie (that red snapper from before).
Some food companies and countries are highly protective (and litigious) of terms and labels, and that helps you know you’re getting the product you’re promised. Grape growers in the Champagne region of France, for example, don’t allow anyone who doesn’t grow the fruit for their sparkling wine on their turf to use the word.
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have a lot of rules and regulations that specify what can and cannot be called a specific food name. Unfortunately, enforcement of those rules is often lax. (Who can blame them? They’re also trying to keep us safe from dangerous medications and potentially deadly lettuce.)
That leaves the search for fraudulent food up to you. It’s not always easy—we’ve all been fooled and just don’t know it—but these tips can help you spot a fake before you take it home with you.
You buy the most elegant bottle on the grocery store shelf. You know—the one with the Brunswick green glass, gold paper wrappings, and ornately scripted label. It’s not in the middle of the shelves—it’s at the top (a trick you’ve read more than once in a favorite magazine)—so it’s supposed to be more authentic. But is it? Perhaps. But the odds aren’t in your favor.
Olive oil is one of the most adulterated foods in grocery stores and restaurants today. Indeed, one series of studies with olive oil samples from the five top-selling U.S. grocery brands found that 73 percent of the samples failed to meet the standards of the International Olive Council (IOC). Olive oil manufacturers may cut their expensive extra-virgin olive oil with an inferior olive oil, or worse another type of oil altogether (soybean or sunflower oil, for example).
How to spot a fake: First, look at the label. Bottles that say “from Italy” or “bottled in Italy” may not be legitimate. Companies can import oil into Italy, package it, ship it out, and add the Italian claim. Legitimate olive oils are “harvested in” or “made in” Italy.
You can also stick to brands you know are legitimate and trustworthy. The same study that found all of the fake oil found that none of the olive oils they tested from Australia and California were fake. Just 11 percent of Italian brands failed the IOC tests.
Look for label additions like “Harvest Date” and a seal from the city or region where the oil was pressed and bottled. Italian EVOO makers are proud of their product, and clues to the origin of the bottle you hold in your hand help you know you can trust the oil.
If you order halibut at a restaurant, will you know if that white block of seasoned fish really is halibut? Or could it be much less expensive cod? To the untrained eye, it’s hard to know. That may be precisely why so many restaurants and grocery stores have mislabeled food or used false fish identifications.
A 2013 study from Oceana found that 38 percent of all restaurant fish samples they tested were mislabeled. The wrong fish was being served. In sushi restaurants, it’s worse. Almost three-quarters of fish samples from sushi restaurants were imposters. Grocery stores fared a bit better: just 18 percent of fish in the retail space was incorrectly labeled.
This same study found that snapper and tuna were most likely to be improperly labeled. Nearly 88 percent of those fish samples were false. Salmon, on the other hand, was mislabeled just seven percent of the time. (Its color is quite distinctive.)
How to spot a fake: You could become a fish expert (unlikely), or you can find a fishmonger you know and trust. When you’re away from your supplier or shopping sales at an unfamiliar store, you can always use Google to closely compare images. Of course, if the fish is in a bisque or soup, it’ll be difficult to know. “Species substitution” is OK when you’re made aware of the switch. It’s not OK when you don’t know it’s happening and you have to pay more.
By now, you’ve probably heard about or even read the 2016 Bloomberg story that detailed how some cheese manufacturers in the United States were adding wood pulp to their Parmesan cheese products (the pre-shredded kind in the tubs and bags, not the wheeled variety). This wood pulp, also known as cellulose, is an approved additive in foods, so it’s safe for consumption. It even helps prevent moisture buildup, and in foods prone to quick molding like cheese, that’s important.
But the report found that cheesemakers were adding more than the approved percentage. Sometimes, a lot more. They were also, in some cases, adding cheap cheddar and trying to pass it off as more expensive Parm. Bloomberg even reported that the FDA discovered some cheese products, such as Market Pantry’s 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, had no actual Parmesan at all.
How to spot a fake: Read the label. The company probably has to tell you if they’re ripping you off; you just might not always see it. If ingredients like “cellulose” make the fine print, you’re being had.
Better yet, buy and grate your own Parm. Cut a wedge straight from a beautiful wheel of Parmesan, and DIY your finely-grated cheese. If you’re willing to splurge, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a bit more expensive than classic Parm, but it’s a legally protected term, so if your cheese says it, it’s real.
This one is a wee bit upsetting, especially for you three-cups-per-day coffee connoisseurs. Some pre-ground coffee is cut with twigs, stone, corn husks, and other ingredients in order to increase the weight of the grinds and decrease the amount of product the manufacturer has to use for one bag of coffee grounds.
How to spot a fake: You might not be able to unless your nose can sort out the terroir of Colombia’s best beans. If you can’t become a trained coffee taster, you can DIY your way out of the dilemma by buying whole beans and grinding your own just before boiling and serving.
Really, that’s a win for your taste buds. Coffee that remains ground for too long loses a great deal of its flavor, intensity, and vigor. If you grind your own, you get the utmost flavor in every cup.
In recent years, Chinese importers have been embroiled in a sticky honey scandal as they were importing honey that, well, wasn’t honey at all. Or if it was, it was diluted with sub-par ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and beet sugar. They were busted, and heavy taffis were put in place. But instead of cleaning up their game, they just shipped their honey to neighboring countries and exported from there.
They’re not the only fakers either. Some honey is indeed cut with cheap sugar. Others may label average clover honey as an exotic varietal and upcharge you the difference.
How to spot a fake: Read the label. It should say only honey. If anything else is listed, you’re not getting the authentic product.
You can also find a local beekeeper and ask them to be your supplier. Most small producers will be happy to show you their lives, and they won’t filter the pollen out of their honey either. (Some honey organizations say honey isn’t honey if it’s been filtered. Others disagree. It’s hard to know if your honey has pollen just by looking at it.)
Not all spices fall victim to the fraud issue, but certain ones—saffron and paprika, for example—are more likely to be fraudulent or diluted with less expensive spices. In fact, one study (from 1995, so don’t panic) found that paprika was cut with ground brick. Today, ultra-expensive saffron may be mixed with marigold flowers, chalk, even plastic threads. Paprika and black pepper may be cut with other cheaper products like ground seeds and plant stems.
How to spot a fake: It’s tricky. Most spice bottles don’t list ingredients, and truthfully, they just might not tell the truth. If the price is too good to be true, the spice may not be real. This is especially the case for expensive saffron.
To make sure you’re getting the real deal, consider buying whole spices and grinding yourself. You can also look for reputable spice stores like Penzey’s.
In the early aughts, the great truffle oil scam was unearthed. The glistening bottles of prized oil were revealed as frauds. Fakes. Phonies. But that didn’t stop many chefs from using the oil that tastes almost like real truffle as Skittles tastes like the rainbow. Still today, most truffle oil is a synthetic mix of olive oil and flavoring compounds like 2,4-dithiapentane. (Now doesn’t that sound delicious?)
Some people are totally OK with eating a fraudulent product, so as long as you know you’re not eating anything that was made with those semi-precious truffles, feel free to dig into pizza drizzled with truffle oil or a truffle pasta doused with a hefty dose.
How to spot a fake: It’s almost all fake, but you can read the labels if you think you may have spotted a real one. Ingredients should be as simple as extra virgin olive oil and truffle. If you spot anything else, it may not be legitimate.