You’ve heard the old saying to believe only half of what you read. When it comes to enjoying your favorite foods, this couldn’t be closer to the truth. In a world of non-dairy dairy products and imitation blueberries, even the most simply packaged foods might not be what they seem.
1. Olive oil
In an ongoing fraud dating back centuries, the extra-virgin olive oil in your pantry is almost never extra virgin and may only have a passing relationship with olives. According to some studies, more than two-thirds of common olive oil are fraudulent; it has even been speculated that no American has ever had 100 percent pure extra-virgin olive oil. They are spoiled, made from unsuitable olives or are outright doctored with various oils. A recent olive oil review found some samples so defective it classified them as lamp oil.
The “Agromafia,” run by the Italian mob, has recently been busted for these dirty food crimes. Common mafia-related olive oil fraud may involve cutting pure olive oil with cheaper oils to save money, like peanut or sunflower, a practice that can be highly dangerous for people with nut and seed allergies.
2. Maple syrup
It is alarming how little maple syrup is actually in our maple syrup. Companies have been reducing the high cost of maple syrup as far back as 1887 by using artificial sweeteners. They’ve been selling increasingly synthetic sugar goop ever since. This strategy has proved so successful that the closest some of our bestselling syrups have been to a tree is the picture on the label of the plastic bottle they come in.
The problem has gotten bad enough that maple-producing industry trade groups are ready to take it to the top. In response to the tidal wave of fake maple syrup overtaking supermarket shelves, producers have demanded that the FDA put an end to the deception and remove the word “maple” from all labels (including flavored oatmeal and ice cream) that don’t contain the actual ingredient.
Unsurprisingly, honey suffers a similar fate as maple syrup — the good stuff being replaced by artificial sweeteners, additives and preservatives. After the largest food fraud in U.S. history, people have been paying closer attention to their honey, ever vigilant for the cheap, impure, sometimes unsafe Chinese honey that slips by U.S. customs with unsettling ease. Brands labeled as “pure honey” only mean anything in Florida (the only state with laws about it). The honey bear lies, people!
Spices are the most common way we’re duped and even put in danger. It’s gotten so bad that even salt is sold with talc. Apparently nothing is sacred.
- Cinnamon is most likely its less flavorful cousin, cassia.
- Black pepper has been known to contain ground-up twigs and buckwheat flour.
- Oregano is mixed with sumac, savory or thyme.
- Chinese star anise is sometimes substituted with its poisonous cousin, Japanese star anise.
- Vanilla extract may actually be cut with ethyl vanillin, which loses its flavor in heat.
- Saffron, the most expensive of all spices, is most likely only 10 percent actual saffron.
- Turmeric is commonly bolstered with rice flour, starches and occasionally lead and may be dyed with a Sudan dye, “metanil yellow,” which causes damage to the nervous system.
- Chili powder and paprika can both be dyed with Sudan dye — a known carcinogen.
- Cumin and coriander powder can be mixed with sawdust.
- Cayenne powder may also have sawdust but could be mixed with red oxide or lead.
To meet the enormous demand for coffee, suppliers use a tried-and-true method from the Great Depression to cut costs. They adulterate their high-priced coffee with any number of filler ingredients: maize, soybeans, ground sweet potatoes, roasted beans and chicory root. The best part of waking up is finding soybeans in my cup.
Milk may do a body good — if it’s actual cow’s milk you’re drinking. It may very well be some mixture of cow, sheep, goat, buffalo and antelope. It may even be cut with oil, urea, detergent and caustic soda.
Is nothing sacred? The FDA recently cracked down on a little-known Parmesan cheese scam after they discovered that most pre-grated Parmesan cheese does not contain Parmesan at all. It gets worse, much worse. Instead of the cheesy goodness that you assumed you were sprinkling atop your homemade pasta, that grated Parm might actually be wood pulp.
8. Orange juice
Your morning OJ may contain high-fructose corn syrup, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, paprika extract and beet sugar. Companies also formulate chemical “flavor packs” to make their juice taste more like, well, juice.
9. Apple juice
You may expect high-fructose corn syrup (and you’d be right), but what about fig juice, pear juice, raisin sweetener and malic acid? Companies even sell phony apple juice to babies.
Even though misbranding food for profit is illegal, there can still be considerable leeway — your tuna can be any of 14 different species of fish — and misidentification and deliberate misrepresentation is rampant. In a recent study by Oceana, a whopping 87 percent of sushi restaurants were caught misrepresenting the fish they serve, which compares to grocery stores, where one of three seafood items sold was misidentified.
- Red snapper is substituted with numerous other fish varieties almost nine out of 10 times, sometimes with fish that should be avoided by pregnant women and children due to high mercury levels.
- Rock shrimp, prized for their lobster-like flavor, are frequently found to be common shrimp species instead when tested.
- White tuna is often swapped with escolar, a snake mackerel that can cause acute gastrointestinal issues.
- Wild Alaskan salmon is cleaner and healthier than farmed salmon, which is literally swimming in contaminants and pesticides. Too bad you’re probably not getting it.
If you’re about to splurge on a fancy bottle, save your cash. Wine counterfeiting is a thing, and what a terrible thing it is. Based on a 2015 NPR report, there are a number of wine fraudsters who run their own home factories, where they bottle cheap wine and put expensive labels on it. This wine fraud most likely applies to pricier bottles, starting at $20 to $30, so an average $10 bottle of wine may still be safe.
More in food
Updated by Bethany Ramos on 2/18/2016