We celebrate Halloween as an opportunity to don a costume and disguise ourselves for one night a year. But did you know that a lot of our favorite foods also hide behind "costumes" of their own, misleading consumers, all year long? Americans are becoming increasingly more concerned about transparency in our food system - and we're here to help. So we've put together this list of five of the biggest fake food culprits to look out for:
Most of us turn to tea as a source of comfort and calm. But would we feel the same if we knew that some teas contain various additional "fillers," ranging from turmeric, copper salts - even sand and sawdust? Fine grain products like tea provide a particularly ideal vessel for disguise. In order to preserve your calming tea time, seek out whole foods, such as loose leaf tea, so you can closer inspect what you're really getting.
Seafood fraud is rampant in the food industry these days; it's a real bait and switch, if you will. One in five seafood samples are mislabeled according to an updated report published by the ocean advocacy group Oceana. Of the 25,000 species of fish sampled, the biggest offender is the Asian catfish because it can easily be disguised when cloaked in sauce. It is often sold in place of cod or grouper, both more expensive than the catfish. Not only is the fraud morally wrong - but the lack of transparency poses potential health risks for consumers, and some of the fish have been listed as endangered or critically endangered. In order to combat the rise in seafood fraud, experts are advocating for stricter regulations throughout the entire supply chain. In the meantime, be sure to read labels carefully and don't be afraid to ask questions at your favorite seafood restaurant or sushi joint.
You know that hyper-convenient, grated parmesan cheese you sprinkle on the pasta dish you just worked so hard to make? Well, there may be some wood pulp making its way onto your noodles. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to further investigate a tip they received stating that some cheese companies supplement their so-called "100 percent real Parmesan" with an excessive amount of cellulose, an anti-clumping derivative of wood pulp. The use of cellulose is not prohibited, but the percentage cannot exceed 2-4 percent to be considered permissible. This is another instance where it's best to opt for the full wedge of Parmesan-Reggiano (or its cheaper cousin, Pecorino) and grate it yourself to be sure that your dish is wood pulp free!
Honey, too? Say it ain't so! Unfortunately, most honey on grocery store shelves isn't what the bees produce. In fact, almost all of the pollen has been filtered out, thus the product can no longer be considered honey according to the FDA. Ultra-filtering is a process where honey is heated, watered down, and filtered to remove the pollen. Pollen is the single indicator for the source of the honey - without pollen, we are unable to identify where the product came from or what exactly it is comprised of. A study conducted by Food Safety News revealed that 76 percent of grocery store-bought honey lacked pollen entirely, and 100 percent of drug store-bought honey also had no trace of pollen. In contrast, 100 percent of honey purchased from farmers' markets, co-ops and natural grocers such as Trader Joe's contained the full amount of pollen expected. Most people in the business understand that filtering out pollen is typically done to hide the source of the honey; your best bet for getting the real deal is to purchase from your local farmers' market or small stores committed to sourcing sustainable products.
5. Olive Oil
Maybe you're downright depressed by this point, but stay tuned, because I have some more bad news for you: your olive oil is likely fake. In fact, most olive oil sold in the United States is not what we think it is, according to Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating & What You Can Do About It. Producers and dealers often fool consumers by combining so-called extra virgin olive oil with cheaper alternatives (such as sunflower oil), diluting high-quality oil with lower-quality oil, or simply making a low-quality batch by using older, sometimes rancid, oil. This last masquerading technique piqued the interest of an Italian olive oil trade association's president, who declared to Olmsted, "Bad oil isn't just deceptive, it's a crime against public health." Before things start to feel too hopeless, here are some tips Olmsted offers to avoid getting duped: 1 ) look for an approval seal from the California Olive Oil Council "COOC Certified Extra Virgin," the Extra Virgin Alliance "EVA" or UNAPROL, 2 ) buy in season, paying attention to the most recent bottling date and 3 ) always be wary of terminology such as "pure" or "natural" which doesn't typically hold much weight.
To leave you on a positive note, there is one good thing about these cases of food fraud: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Globally, we have cultivated food products that are so delicious and in high demand that fake derivatives have made their way onto our grocery store shelves. With help from food experts, we are able to strip these products of their costumes and know what to look for to get the real deal. After all, everyday can't be Halloween!