Fraudulent food: it lurks in our pantries; it shines with promising health halos in the stores; and it fools us into a false sense of nourishment. (Dun dun dunnnnn!!) No but really, I hate being The Food Police because there are a lot of really phenomenal products and brands of nutritious foods available to us; but there are also a handful of “healthy” foods that are not quite as they seem.
How Food Fraud Works
Food fraud is defined as “intentionally selling a food product that does not meet regulatory or industry standards.” We’ll get specifically to the top health food frauds I encounter regularly as a dietitian in just a bit, but there are certain broad categories of foods that are more susceptible to fraud than others. Fish (and seafood in general) is the number one most adulterated food of U.S. origin. Other commonly fraudulent foods include milk, oils and fats, meat products, alcohol, sweeteners, grain products, produce, spices and extracts, fruit juices, eggs, coffee, and tea. If you’re thinking that sounds like kind of everything you eat, you’re not exactly wrong. Okay, you’re kind of completely right. But that doesn’t mean every product within these categories is problematic. Deep breaths. Now, if you’re wondering how companies get away with something that sounds so incredibly serious, the answer is, well, all too easily; and also in a number of ways. One of the most common issues is substitution of one food for another without disclosing this on the label. Other products are diluted with less expensive fillers (including water), artificially enhanced, counterfeited, or mislabeled. Sometimes, the product’s origin is masked, it is distributed with intentional contamination, or it is stolen and resold. A lot of these sound worse than they are. They’re all a little deceptive, but most are perfectly safe. For example, selling an acai juice that is cut with apple juice to cut down on costs is sneaky, wrong, and not ideal in terms of nutrient quality, but you certainly won’t get sick from it acutely or chronically. However, others are a bit more concerning, and it’s important to know the difference. Olive oil may have been the first health food that I learned is notoriously fraudulent. In fact, it’s been shown that up to 80 percent of Italian olive oil may not be what it claims to be. Considering the fact that U.S. olive oil consumption has skyrocketed by over 70 percent in as little as one generation, this is a big deal. People tell me with pride about how much olive oil they use. They’re doing something that’s “healthy” for them. But are they really? Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined and the highest quality option. It is made by pressing high quality olives without chemicals or heat, maintaining more nutrients and bolder flavors. Virgin olive oil is the next rung down on the totem pole, followed by generic olive oil. But a label that boasts “extra virgin” or “virgin” is not always accurate. Some are lower quality olive oils being mislabeled. Other bottles are actually mixed with other oils altogether, as in, not from the olive plant at all. And the most troublesome, worst case scenario is the possibility that there’s actually no olive oil in that bottle whatsoever, just vegetable oil mixed with coloring and “aroma.” Nicholas Blechman of the New York Times created a nice illustration of this sketchy supply chain, and Tom Mueller has written about it extensively in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. When perusing your store’s olive oil selections, look for a harvest date (specifically from the current year), not just a “best by” date. And pay attention to seals from certain councils, including the Australian Olive Association and the California Olive Oil Council and Association.
Oh, honey. Where should I begin? There’s the fact that over 70 percent of honey in 2011 was imported, with its pollen filtered out to prevent fully tracing its origins. We do know that much of it is coming from China. Or we could talk about the total lack of standards for honey identity (seriously), which makes it extra difficult to even attempt any kind of regulation. Largely because of this so-called identity crisis, it’s not surprising that unwanted substances so often find their way into honey. Reports have shown contaminants in a large percentage of honey samples, by which I mean antibiotics plus pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. Suddenly honey doesn’t seem quite so sweet, does it? Of course, it gets better. Moving past the issue of contaminants, some brands of honey aren’t really honey at all. The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that it’s illegal to sell a product labeled as pure, 100 percent honey if it contains other ingredients, and to their credit, they do test a certain percentage of imports for added sugar. This worked well for a while, at least until high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) came onto the scene. HFCS is made up of very similar sugar proportions as honey, making it difficult to identify in a simple import test. Research has shown that diluting honey with HFCS is therefore becoming increasingly more common. (Because it’s much cheaper!) All hope is not lost, however. There are always local apiaries selling at small businesses, festivals, and farmers markets. Knowing your farmer and being able to ask about his/her farm is your best bet for buying genuine, pure honey. At the very least, look for the “True Source Certified” seal among your supermarket’s offerings.
3. “Free Range”
All right, so “free range” isn’t exactly a food, but it is a term that we tend to view as an indication of a premium product for nutrition and wellness without fully understanding what it officially means. When you hear that a meat product comes from “free range animals,” what do you picture? Probably bucolic America: rolling green hills, a red barn in the distance, and happy animals milling around in the sunshine to their hearts’ content. In reality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) definition of “free range” simply states that the animal must have access to the outdoors. It doesn’t stipulate the amount of time each day the animal must spend outdoors (or “have access” to the outdoors), nor is it concerned with most other considerations of the animals’ living conditions. It’s also pretty much only regulated for poultry, not egg-laying hens or other animals. This translates to, yes, sometimes rolling green hills, a red barn in the distance, and happy animals milling around in the sunshine to their hearts’ content. But it could also translate to an enormous warehouse-like barn crammed with a carpeting of living animals and a little tiny “doggy door” type opening at one far corner open to a small, closed-in patch of mud that the maybe-not-so-happy-after-all animals never actually use. Ugh. I know. There isn’t really a perfect option here, but you could try looking for the terms “pastured” or “pasture raised” instead, especially in conjunction with a certified humane seal. However, your best option is to know your farmer. Talk to them. Ask to see their farm. Knowledge is power and words are too easily manipulated.
4. Coffee and Tea
If you knew what was in some coffee out there, you might not think of it as the best part of waking up anymore. Coffee is an expensive product, and the demand for it globally is staggering. Americans, after all “Run On Dunkin,” spending nearly $15.00 a week (over $1,000 annually) on coffee. Those figures do not even factor in the amount spent on home-brewed cups of joe, by the way. Some of us may be eager, willing, and able to spend top dollar for our daily caffeine habit, but most of us view it as a daily necessity to have without breaking the bank. As a result, ground coffee is often cut with leaves, twigs, corn, barley, parchment, chicory, cereal grains, caramel, starch, malt, and figs to stretch the manufacturer’s dollar. Instant coffee is most susceptible to this, but not the only issue. And if you’re now thinking of switching your morning hot beverage of choice to tea, things aren’t all rosy over in that camp, either. Many tea bags include leaves from other plants, color additives, and sometimes even colored saw dust (it’s technically edible). But there is hope! If you can, invest in a coffee grinder and purchase whole coffee beans. Do your best to avoid instant coffee, too. I would totally tell you if I knew of exact brands with worse or better reputations for the pre-ground stuff (or tea bags), but that information is not easily accessible. Instead, do your best to make your own judgment calls when researching which brands you’re going to trust. We can’t live in fear of food, and sometimes when information is lacking, we have to do our best with the insight we do have rather than let it paralyze us.
5. Sushi (and Other Fish)
Remember how seafood and fish are some of the most adulterated foods of U.S. origin? It turns out that over half of “tuna” and nearly 90 percent of “snapper” are being substituted for cheaper, easier-to-procure fish. This is not just a problem of you paying for something and getting another. Sometimes, the fish they swap in raises serious health concerns. For example, in one market in New York, tilefish was sold labeled as halibut and red snapper. Tilefish happens to be on the “do not eat” list that the FDA makes in regards to high-mercury containing fish. The same goes for king mackerel, which in one Florida grocery store was sold with the label of “grouper” on it. Other examples of commonly mislabeled fish and seafood include: farmed Atlantic salmon masquerading as wild caught; tooth fish labeled as sea bass; tilapia and perch being sold under the guise of snapper, and escolar swapped in for tuna. Sushi restaurants have the most hits for mislabeled fish and seafood, followed by restaurants in general. Grocery stores, as discussed above, are not scot-free, but those grievances occur at significantly lower rates. Be very wary of seafood at restaurants. Those in port cities and beach towns that feature locally caught options may be more reliable, but if that’s out of the question, another good bet is any menu item sold as the whole fish, which makes the ole switcheroo more difficult. Try your hand, too, at cooking fish and seafood yourself, and no matter where the seafood comes from, check the price. If it sounds too good to be true, it may very well be so.
6. Berry Products
Are the blueberries in your muffins the healthy, antioxidant-rich fruits you expect them to be? Or are they simply sneaky slurries of sugar, corn syrup, starch, hydrogenated oil (yikes), artificial flavors, and blue and red food dyes? According to one study in 2011, we might be looking at the latter, and not just in low-cost, no-name knock-offs. We’re talking major brands here, and berries aren’t the only ones falling victim to this deception. Betty Crocker’s banana nut muffin pouch contains absolutely no banana, just “natural and artificial flavor;” and their blueberry muffin pouch contains, and I quote, “artificial blueberry flavor bits.” Blueberry flavor bits. Bon appetit indeed! Then, there are the “strawberry flavored fruit pieces” in Special K’s red red berries bar that are really cranberries with added strawberry flavor; or their “blueberry” blend bar whose blueberries are dried apples and cranberries with blueberry juice concentrate (and of course some blue dye for good measure). Their dark chocolate pomegranate snack bars use pomegranate-flavored cranberries; their berry medley snack bars are apples with artificial berry flavors; and their strawberry protein meal bars merely contain “strawberry flavored fruit pieces.” What to do about all this fruity nonsense? First of all, read ingredients. These companies aren’t hiding this information; we just aren’t looking closely enough. I, too, am sometimes drawn to pretty pictures and lofty front-of-package claims, but be a skeptic and flip that package over before putting it straight into your cart. Whenever possible, buy plain foods, like cereals and oatmeal, and flavor them yourself with fresh berries. Frozen ones that aren’t packed in syrup are great too. And do try your hand at making your own baked goods. It’s really not as intimidating as it seems, and it can actually be fun!
Knowledge is power.
I know how paralyzing information like this can feel. It’s the primary reason why so many nutrition students go practically militant when they embark on their education. I’ve had many worried parents seek my counsel when their children start taking up an interest in nutrition, and suddenly nothing is good enough to eat. This is a very real concern and a growing issue in this country. When my clients start expressing signs of this kind of food fear, I make them take a big, cleansing breath. Yes, there are some serious problems with our food supply chain. Yes, it can sometimes feel like we are powerless before these giant food companies. But that’s far from the truth. Knowledge should be powerful, not paralyzing, so remember that for every unsavory food manufacturing practice, there is another company doing things with integrity and dedication. If you can, buy from shorter, visible supply chains: for example, straight from a farmer, a cooperative, or other avenue where you can trace the food’s origins. If you can’t (because chances are, you can’t for every single thing you buy), read labels and fine print carefully. A lot of the “frauds” out there can be boiled down to us falling for the marketing ploys on the front of the package without ever paying attention to those asterisks and ingredient lists. And of course, buy minimally processed foods. Just like whole coffee beans are less likely to be fraudulent than pre-ground coffee and whole cuts of fish are less commonly mislabeled than fillets and smaller cuts, an apple is also far more difficult to adulterate than apple juice. In the case of the apple, it’s also more nutritious.
You will not get it right every time.
Accept it right now: you are going to buy a product that is mislabeled or misrepresented. We all do sometimes, and it’s okay. But giving yourself permission to not know everything about everything all the darn time is not the same as burying your head in the sand. Do your research. Read your labels. Put in the effort to make the informed choice, but don’t beat yourself up when you don’t predict every curve ball some companies are going to try pitching to you. Again, food fraud is not ideal, but the majority of examples are more unethical than they are downright dangerous. It’s okay. You will be okay. Deep breaths. Deep, cleansing breaths.