You can and should read food labels to know what you’re feeding yourself and your family — but those labels don’t always tell the full story.
Food fraud is on the rise, with 800 new cases documented by the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention just in the last year — and some of the unlisted substitutions aren’t just of lesser quality.
They’re downright dangerous.
Here are a few to watch out for:
Seafood: Escolar is a fish so dangerous that it’s banned in many countries. The problem is the waxy esters, which can cause serious (and painful) food poisoning. But it’s turning up in food anyway — often intentionally mislabeled as white tuna, butterfish, or albacore. In addition, toxic puffer fish are often sold as monkfish. And as I recently told you, high-mercury fish are often deliberately mislabeled and resold as low-mercury fish. Choose carefully from a merchant you trust.
Beef: Recent tests in Britain found horsemeat in hamburger and lasagna. It’s easy to slip lesser ingredients into ground meats, especially packaged ground meats. Stick to whole cuts of meat from a quality butcher instead.
Olive Oil: Olive oil is often blended with cheaper and less healthy oils — so much so that it’s now a leading source of food fraud. I had some tips on how to choose the real thing last year, and you can read it for free right here.
Coffee & Tea: Ground coffee can be mixed with ground black seeds, while teas can be mixed with worthless fern leaves, lawn cuttings, and even sawdust. Stick to loose teas and whole coffee beans from makers you trust.
Spices: Like coffee, ground spices can be mixed with seeds. Common fakes include black pepper, turmeric, chili pepper, and saffron. Buy whole spices instead.
Juices: Expensive juices such as pomegranate are often mixed with cheap juices like grape. In one USP test, a container of supposedly 100 percent pomegranate juice had no pomegranate at all.
Lemon juice: Some companies put chemical phthalates into lemon juice to give it a cloudy “fresh squeezed” look — but phthalates have been linked to behavioral problems in children and diabetes in adults, as well as sexual dysfunction and more. You’re better off squeezing the lemon yourself — they’re inexpensive and it’s not much work.
Dairy: Milk is another top source of food fraud, according to USP — but since we were not designed to drink the milk of another animal anyway, the easy answer here is to skip it. Try healthy nut milks instead.
Maple syrup: Maple syrup and other syrups as well as honey and jam are mixed with chemical sweeteners and other artificial syrups. Avoid discount brands, and anything from China.
These are just some of the most common examples of food fraud — but they’re not the only examples. You can search the USP’s online food fraud database at foodfraud.org for more, or report anything you’ve found yourself.
The best way to protect your family is to stick to whole fresh foods that haven’t been processed. Try organic vegetables from a farm or farmer’s market and lean whole meats from a butcher, not a factory.
Dr. Mark Stengler