How to avoid doctored food
Keeping it real: Prescriptions for avoiding doctored food
Keeping it real: Are the foods you buy what you think they are? Is honey the real deal? What about truffle oil, pomegranate juice, saffron, pepper or lemon juice? (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Are the foods you buy what you think they are? Is honey the real deal? What about truffle oil, pomegranate juice, saffron, pepper or lemon juice?
"There are simply unethical people who don't care what they put in food to make money," says John Spink, the associate director of Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program at Michigan State University. Spink is a criminology voice in the movement to stop adulteration, counterfeiting and mislabeling that also includes public health professionals, consumer groups and industry watchdogs.
Adulterated olive oil, mislabeled fish and diluted juice are some of the familiar culprits. But insufficient weight, the use of fillers and mislabeled country of origin (where regulations might be lax or nonexistent) are also problems.
These practices pose a huge threat to some of the food industry's major players that have a real interest in protecting the integrity of their products. The honey industry, for example, after wrestling with the problem of adulterated honey coming into this country through the global back door, created a third-party source to monitor the industry for fraud and adulteration.
For consumers, the vast majority of fraudulent practices do not pose a health threat, Spink explained. Rather, the problem lies in possibly paying top dollar while getting something decidedly less. With the old maxim "let the buyer beware" in mind, here are some examples from experts.
Eric Wenger is the chairman of True Source Honey, an industry watchdog that conducts ethical sourcing audits. The U.S. produces 150 million pounds of honey per year, but consumes 400-450 million pounds, so it's dependent on other countries to fill the demand. Honey, produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants, is easy to adulterate by adding sugar water or cheaper sugar substitutes such as glucose. But according to Wenger, there are many reliable tests to detect sugar adulteration. The "True Source Certified" label is starting to appear, mostly in large groceries, on honey that has "been subjected to a degree of certainty," he said. Honey sold at farmers markets is, hopefully, more reliable, but the most effective way to avoid adulteration is to buy honey still in the comb, the natural packaging produced by the bees themselves.
Ground spices and herbs
One problem is the addition of cheaper leaves to more expensive herbs, such as oregano, said Cheryl Deem, the executive director of the American Spice Trade Association. Another is that some spices, including paprika and black pepper, are used to make oleo resins (highly concentrated natural spice flavors), and the spent material is sometimes mixed in with the real product, Deem said. Six years ago, ASTA began a self-regulation program in which member companies can file a complaint and ask ASTA to test a suspected product. One way to avoid adulterants is to buy such spices as pepper and nutmeg in whole form and grind them. Freshly ground spices also smell and taste much better.
Saffron, which is derived from the stigma of the saffron crocus, has a 4,000-year-old lineage — and a 4,000 year history of adulteration. To complicate things, the world's most expensive spice comes in different grades, said Tom Erd, the owner of the Spice House in Chicago. The top grade consists of deep red threads, while slightly lower grades can have some yellow threads from the plant and still be high quality. Most recipes using saffron call for a small number of threads to impart saffron's unmistakable flavor and yellow color. Buy saffron as threads, because powdered saffron is easy to adulterate with turmeric or other cheaper spices. And, if the color looks very red and it was not very expensive, chances are it's a cheap substitute dyed red.
Saffron: Half gram: about $4-$5
Saffron? Two ounces (56 grams): $33
"Truffle oil has never visited a truffle," Erd says. The product is not infused with real truffles but rather is flavored by chemicals created in a laboratory. But there is an alternative: truffle salt contains real truffles, he says. He cautions that once opened, truffle salt will begin to lose its flavor, so use it soon.
In the mid-'90s, a company called PomWonderful began the process of planting 18,000 acres of pomegranate trees in California's San Joaquin Valley. The company grows, processes and bottles the juice to ensure its authenticity. Ironically, its marketing campaign created a demand larger than it could supply, and global counterfeiters were happy to fill the need with juice adulterated with black carrot juice, red-dyed water and other unsavory substitutes. Pure pomegranate juice is expensive, but this is an instance to consider avoiding bargains.
Lemon juice adulterated with water, citric acid and sugar is a problem that the FDA has been asked to investigate. Instead of waiting for government action, take your own: Don't use bottled lemon juice. Juice made from freshly squeezed lemons tastes much better anyway.