Much has been made in recent years about whole food, slow food and organic fare, which is being sold for a premium in many supermarkets and restaurants across the United States. But how can you tell what’s real and what’s not so real?
You may be saying to yourself, “Why is this a big deal?” but the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sends out scores of alerts each year warning consumers about foods that are being sold as mislabeled, misbranded, adulterated and even contaminated.
Common ‘fake’ foods list: Are you buying these unaware?
There are common foods we buy on a regular basis simply because we believe that they have a level of quality that — gasp! — in many cases can’t be proven. With that in mind, here are several edibles that deserve a closer look in determining whether they’re really what they say they are.
Reports in recent years have pointed out that much of the honey we buy in our favorite supermarket isn’t pure honey at all, or at least not much of it. While the FDA allows adulteration of honey, any additives must be expressly declared on the label. The FDA’s guidance says that, “Identifying a blend or a mixture of honey and another sweetener only as ‘honey’ does not properly identify the basic nature of the food. You must sufficiently describe the name of the food on the label to distinguish it from simply ‘honey’.”
You don’t see Kobe steak on a whole lot of restaurant menus, but when you so, tread carefully — it might be a scam. The fact is that not much of Kobe steak, which is super-expensive, leaves Japan. Kobe beef is taken from purebred Japanese cattle and is strictly regulated in that nation. Exported only since 2012, the meat has to be certified by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Association.
On that agency’s website, which you’ll need to translate from Japanese, it says that the cattle are so well-taken care that there may even be small herds that are reared listening to music. Talk about exclusive!
There are different variations of soy sauce, particularly the distinct ways it’s produced in Japan, China and other Asian countries. But you’d be surprised how much soy sauce is watered-down or downright fabricated. In 2016, FDA inspectors concluded that more than half of randomly selected soy sauce products failed government standards, according to the Taipei Times.
Fraud is rampant in the global seafood industry. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported one of the world’s most reputable seafood distributors was pulling a tuna ruse on what consumers and buyers thought was “local, sustainable” fish. Turns out the fish were from halfway around the world, caught by poor fishermen working 22-hour days. Aside from affecting the supplies of some of the nation’s top chefs and restaurants, the repercussions are still rippling across the industry.
What was uncovered in the investigation “throws quite a wrench” in the narrative that these tuna catches come from small fishing villages that make their living by it, award-winning TV chef Rick Bayless was quoted as saying. To make matters worse, much of what’s purported to be tuna on the world market is actually escolar, a fish the FDA says can contain toxins and should be avoided.
Ah, tilapia. Despite being the fourth-most popular fish in the United States, tilapia is a species much maligned by conspiracists and people who like to share dubious memes on Facebook. Contrary to those well-circulated claims, tilapia is easy to farm but can also be found in the wild. According to researchers with the MIT Sea Grant Program, the fish originated from the Middle East and Africa, but was introduced to the United States, particularly the Southeast, for weed and insect control.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, tilapia is one of those fish that many people associate with nefarious Chinese farms. It’s true that the USDA has previously warned against eating seafood from those origins because of some of the practices of China’s fishermen, but in recent years the agency has avoided making generalizations about that country’s farm-raised species. Still, here are the FDA’s warnings to its inspectors about tilapia imports.
We’ve told you about how one of the most popular brands of olive oil was recently involved in a class-action lawsuit due to its claims of selling “extra virgin” and other issues. Turns out, for olive oil to get the elusive “extra virgin” status, it has to pass lab tests administered by the Madrid-based International Olive Council.
According to Forbes, a food fraud study published in the Journal of Food Science showed that olive oil was “the single most commonly referenced adulterated food of any type” over a 30-year span ending in 2010.
That big, healthy piece of chicken you’re eyeing in the meat section at the grocer is likely full of water, especially if it’s frozen. That’s because of “plumping,” which is the common practice of injecting your chicken with water and other ingredients. Not only does this make it look bigger — and meatier — than it really is, but plumping adds up at the cash register when you pay by the pound. A video that purports to show a worker at a processing plant plumping chickens with a solution went viral in 2015. Injecting chickens with water is legal, as long as the ingredients are on the label. Just know that you may be paying for a chicken who owes as much as 30% of its weight to water.
Think that farm-raised salmon you watched the fishmonger cut for you is naturally pink? Not likely. “Almost all farmed salmon are fed feed that contains artificial color additives,” according to a bulletin from the Seafood Products Association. Indeed, the FDA has rules that expressly address the color sometimes added to the feed of salmonid fish to enhance the “pink to orange-red color” of the fish’s flesh. The product label must state the color additive with general words to the effect of “Artificial Color,” “Artificial Color Added” or “Color Added.”
Grocery store beef, like other foods on this list, may be artificially colored so as to look red or fresh. After all, people shop with their eyes first and foremost. “Often an attractive, bright color is a consideration for the purchase,” the FDA says. The agency has no qualms about this and says in its guidance on food coloration that, “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat. Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow, and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.”
People often brag about forking over big money for a lobster dish at places like Red Lobster and other restaurants — but they might have nothing to boast about. See, they may not even be eating lobster at all. Instead, many eateries are serving them langostino, a similar-looking but smaller and cheaper crustacean. Sometimes restaurants will just add the word and people will only see “lobster.”
Several years ago, the FDA sent a warning letter to a company telling it to get its act straight. “Your Parmesan cheese products do not contain any Parmesan,” it said. Some companies were even called out putting wood pulp in their cheese. In 2016, Bloomberg News tested various store-bought brands of grated cheese for “wood-pulp content” and the additive cellulose, which is safe at 2 to 4%. This is what they found:
Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent, according to test results. Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent.
Know any other foods with dubious origins? Let us hear about it in the comments!