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Since the dawn of commerce there has been an element of misinformation, hucksterism and downright fraud associated with many products on the consumer market. Where money is to be made, scruples have a way of being stretched thin. Years ago, ‘snake-oil’ salesmen made their livings pushing bogus elixirs on the gullible, and these practices led to the development of product regulation, oversight and consumer protection.

But a recent review by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) warns consumers that use of fake ingredients in food products is on the rise.

In a recently released food products database, the USP has advised consumers, the FDA and manufacturers that the amount of food fraud they found is up by 60 percent, this year, with over 800 new records added to their database.

Food fraud is is the adulteration, dilution or mislabeling of goods, as defined by the FDA. USP researchers add that food fraud is “the fraudulent addition of nonauthentic substances or removal or replacement of authentic substances without the purchaser’s knowledge for economic gain to the seller.”

Food fraud is is the adulteration, dilution or mislabeling of goods, as defined by the FDA

According to researchers John Spink and Douglas Moyer, “Although the intention of food fraud is financial gain, the public health risks are often more risky than traditional food safety threats because the contaminants are unconventional.” In other words, new contaminants have entered our food stream with unknown and unresearched impacts on human health.

The global economic downturn in recent years has created a more competitive environment for food producers, and the increasingly complex nature of global food supply chains has strained efforts at oversight and regulatory agencies. With thousands of new ingredients and additives entering the food supply each year, the manpower to review these substances is unable to keep pace. Researchers also noted that many new adulterants are not listed on the register of known harmful chemicals.

It is not surprising that the most commonly fraudulent products are also among the most expensive. Even small dilutions of premium olive oil, for example, result in significant savings by the manufacturer. The USP data show that olive oil, milk, saffron, honey and coffee top the USP fraudulent product list.

According to the USP research, the most foods found to have fraudulent claims are:

Olive oil

Researchers found that olive oil, even when labeled as ‘extra-virgin’, is the most adulterated food, usually cut by hazelnut oil. Hazelnut oil has fatty acid composition similar to olive oil, but also contains allergens. Other cheaper ingredients include corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, palm oil, and walnut oil.

To see a list of olive oil brands fraudulently labeled as “extra virgin”, you can source this article: Tests indicate that imported “extra virgin” olive oil often fails international and USDA standards – UC Davis Olive Center, July 2010.


Milk may be diluted with water or ‘extended’ with melamine. Where milk is sold by weight, diluting with water is an age-old method for increasing profit. Milk extended with melamine results from the use of nonspecific technologies to assay total nitrogen as an indicator of protein content instead of more specific methods.


Brands marked as “pure honey” may include other ingredients such as sugar syrup, corn syrup, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, beet sugar, and “honey from a non-authentic geographic origin.” Some honey is also likely laced with illegal Chinese antibiotics from abroad and heavy metals, according to Food Safety News.

For a list of honey brands listed as problematic, see Food Safety News, Nov. 7, 2011

Saffron and Tumeric

Inside bottles of saffron, one of the most expensive spices, scientists have found glycerin, sandalwood dust, tartrazine (a yellow dye linked to hyperactivity in children and lupus); barium sulfate (a fluid mainly used in oil well drilling); and borax. Turmeric was recalled from US stores in 2011 because of lead contamination, the possible culprit being lead chromate which has a yellow color similar to that of turmeric.

Orange Juice

Orange juice brands have been found to contain fungicide and cheaper ingredients such as lemon juice, mandarin juice, grapefruit juice, high fructose corn syrup, paprika extract, and beet sugar.

Lemon Juice

“One had 10 percent lemon juice, it said it had 100 percent, another had 15 percent lemon juice, another…had 25 percent, and the last one had 35 percent lemon juice,” Sally Greenberg, Executive Director for the National Consumers League said. “And they were all labeled 100 percent lemon juice.” Clouding agents are often used in fruit juices, like lemon juice, to make the juice appear as freshly squeezed.


Coffee is supplied by producers from many different countries, and standards vary which creates opportunities for adulterants or cheaper ingredients to be added, Some fraudulent additives to coffee may include roasted corn, ground roasted barley, and even roasted ground parchment. Adulterants in instant coffee include chicory, cereals, caramel, more parchment, starch, malt, and figs.

Apple Juice

Grape juice, high fructose corn syrup, pear juice, pineapple juice, raisin sweetener, fig juice, fructose, and malic acid have all been detected in apple juice.

Tips for consumers to help ensure food authenticity:

~ Buy Locally

Local producers of meat, dairy and produce are likely to be accountable since they’re known in the community. Farmer’s markets, dockside seafood sales, local orchards, nearby small-scale poultry producers, local honey producers and coop gardens are usually reliable sources for quality foods.

~ Grow Your Own Fruits and Vegetables

A semi-dwarf fruit tree can produce hundreds of apples, plums, pears and other fruit in a small backyard, with a little care and access to sunlight. And fruit is easy to harvest and store for use over a period of many months. To learn more about growing your own fruit, read our Guide to Growing Fruit Trees.

Lettuce and other leafy vegetables are essential for maintaining good health, but they are also the largest source of food-borne contamination in the U.S To learn how to grow your own vegetables, read our Guide to Backyard Vegetable Gardening.

~ Buy 100% Pure Juice

Avoid buying juices labeled as “made from concentrate”. Or invest in an electric juicer and make your own juices and juice blends.

~ Squeeze Your own Juices using Whole Fruit

An alternative to lemon juice is to use whole lemon and squeeze cut wedges as needed. Cut lemons store well.

~ Grind Your own Coffee

Buying your favorite coffee beans and grinding them at home will give you the freshest tasting coffee with the least amount of adulterants. As a general rule, buying food in ‘whole form’ is a good way to ensure quality.

~ Read Product Labels, Visit Supplier Websites.

Read the list of ingredients on the back of the package. If any ingredient is questionable, or if you use the product regularly and want more information, visit the supplier website which is often printed on the label. Here the supplier can explain in depth about the ingredients used for their product. You can also send in questions about the product via their website.

~ Report Food Borne Illnesses

If you suspect tainted food or mislabelled food products, keep the label or container on hand and report your suspicion to your State Health Department. Reports from consumers are valuable in helping to identify fraudulent food practices.

Food fraud is not a pandemic. Although its extent is not known exactly, researchers have said the problem may affect 6% of our food supply. So there’s no reason to over-react and stop eating these foods. Consumers do, however, need to be vigilant in making food choices, and look to food practices they can adopt which help ensure a healthy food supply for their families.