Identifying Counterfeit Food
by Maria Reidelbach
There’s no getting around it; even though there are many great reasons for eating locally grown foods—deliciousness, health, support for our local farms, economy and environment—it’s usually more expensive than the packaged products in our supermarkets. With budgets tightening, why is it worth it spend extra for something local?
To start, it’s important to know how much of the food in our supermarkets is not what we think it is.
A quick and dirty history of food marketing is useful here. Throughout history, food purveyors have sold adulterated, misnamed, spoiled, and even infested food to unsuspecting customers. Starting in the middle ages, governments began regulating artisanal goods like wine, cheese and sausages to protect public health and commerce (the 1516 Bavarian Purity Law beer making).
Food regulations are essential. When your food comes from far away, looking nothing like its original form, how do you really know what it’s made of? Think Fruit Loops. Or frozen hamburgers.
According to a number of reports, food fraud in the United States is common, and increasing. Food fakery takes many forms, and unfortunately our government is complicit in some of them. According to Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food Fake Food, “most of the foods we eat every day are produced or imported, labeled and sold with almost no oversight at all.”
Our food system is supposed to be looked after by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The USDA was formed to promote all agriculture, but since the 1950s has focused on industrial-scale agriculture growing mainly wheat, corn and soybeans: commodity crops. The FDA, created to protect and promote public health, has grown increasingly ineffective as it refuses to create legal definitions for food types—such as what “all natural” and “GMO free” really means—while dropping once-strict inspection schedules in lieu of a food industry honor system.
Into this vacuum have stepped—fanfare please—citizen watchdogs! High school science students have checked the DNA of market fish and investigative journalists followed supply chains for “natural” foods. They and others have revealed surprising truths about what we eat.
Here’s a rundown of the most prominent rip-offs and how to avoid them:
It’s All in a Name
Trade names are one of the most valuable pieces of intellectual property a company can own, the very essence of identity and branding, and here in the United States, trade names and logos have bullet-proof legal protection. You can’t stick an Apple logo on an LG flip phone and sell it—that’s fraud.
When it comes to food names, however, our government is not so strict. In most countries, farms and small traditional producers use protected trade names for wines, cheeses, beers and other foodstuffs that are dependent on unique species, types of soil, and production processes. A great example is Parmesan cheese. For over eight centuries, the real deal has famously and proudly been made only in the towns of Parma and Reggio. Production methods are strictly regulated: cattle must graze only local meadows; supplements, antibiotics and hormones are forbidden; within two hours of milking cheesemaking must commence at nearby cheese dairies. Just as much care is taken with the shaping and aging processes—each wheel of cheese is numbered and sold to customers by the slice. In most of the world, the names Parmesan and Parmagiano-Reggiano cannot be used for any other cheese.
In the United States, we see plastic wrapped “Parmesan” in deli cases and dollar stores. Most of it is not from Parma, nor from Reggio. What’s it made of? Target’s Market Pantry brand grated Parmesan contains Swiss, mozzarella, white cheddar and cellulose (the latter being sawdust, a legal additive to cheese in the US). Walmart’s Parmesan was 10% sawdust until Bloomberg Media ran an expose in 2016 and they lowered the amount.
There’s similar legal chicanery going on with other cheese names like Muenster, Gruyére, and Manchego. Why can’t US-made products be called by their own, unique names so that we’d know what we’re getting? Oh, I guess “Cheese Blend with Sawdust” isn’t very appetizing.
There are wonderful local options for hard cheeses. Chaseholm Farm Creamery in Pine Plains is making an Alpine style cheese that even has those delicious crunchy lactate crystals. And you can get real Parmagiano-Reggiano at many supermarkets, if you read the labels carefully.
But while some foods are misidentified, it’s the ingredient lists that fake us out for others. Juices are particularly notorious. A bottle may be labeled “100% juice” and covered in pictures of pomegranates. Pure pom juice, you’d think. But no, look more closely. See the word “blend” in smaller, less prominent lettering? What you’re being offered may be 99% apple juice, 1% pomegranate, with added “natural” pomegranate flavor (see below). Read the fine print! Then put the product down and eat some real, locally grown fruit, which is better for you than juice, anyway!
Sometimes, a cheaper substance is used to replace some or all of the original. Fish is a notorious example—delicious, healthy, and one of the last wild foods eaten by most Americans, it’s getting more expensive. Which has made it the number one most frequently faked food.
For example, researchers found that restaurant customers ordering white tuna received a fake 94% of the time! If it’s not tuna, what is it? How about escolar, which contains a natural wax ester that can cause digestive distress and diarrhea for days. In the business it’s nicknamed the Ex-lax fish, and has been banned in Hong Kong and Japan. Never heard of it? It’s one of the most widely sold fish in the US, but always under other names— often as white tuna. Similarly, farmed fish—often drug-laden—are frequently sold as wild.
Luckily, we’ve got some Long Island fisherman who sell at our farmer’s markets. And, if you’re up for it, there’s lots of fish in our local streams and lakes—you could even stock your own pond.
One Hudson Valley crop as precious as liquid gold is honey. It’s expensive because it’s resource intensive, made of the nectar of zillions of flowers, collected, processed and packaged by thousands of bees, then reprocessed and packaged again by people. Because real honey brings a premium price, hucksters are rampant—making honey the third most faked food in the world. Both FDA and USDA regulations are vague enough that honey can be legally cut with other kinds of sugar syrup. Honey from China, for example, is sometimes adulterated with potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals, by farmers who cut corners by feeding their bees corn syrup, or finish immature honey outside the hive, masking nasty odors with more chemicals. The stuff is actually banned by the USDA, but it continues to stream in to the country through other countries. Worse, adulterated honey is often used in processed and prepared foods like breakfast cereals and sweets.
Why not use local sources of honey, or have Cornell Cooperative Extensions help you set up your own hive.
A third way of selling fake food is perhaps the most insidious. Government regulations and subsidies these days favor gigantic agricultural corporations that drastically standardize crops and depend on fossil fuels for machinery, fertilizers and other agrochemicals. Corn accounts for almost half of our entire agricultural output; wheat and soy together, about one fifth.
Where is all that corn going? Some is being fed to cattle, chickens and other livestock to fatten them cheaply and quickly, but most is transformed into packaged food that’s fattening. Food engineers (what a term!) in the late 1950s discovered how to take apart and identify flavor chemicals. Then they learned how to mimic those natural flavors using molecules more available from cheaper materials. For example, artificial vanilla is made from pinecones.
At first artificial flavors were primitive and not very convincing. But the science improved and by the 1980s regulations were loosened so that any artificial flavor could be called natural as long as it was made without using petrochemicals. These days, virtually all processed food contains “natural” flavors.
These chemicals are not directly dangerous, necessarily, but studies have shown that we, and all animals, naturally crave the flavors of exactly the nutrients we need. When we eat artificially flavored foods our bodies expect the nutrition the flavor promises. When we don’t get it we just keep eating and eating and eating. This cycle is reinforced by spiking many processed foods with astounding amounts of hidden sugar, which has been proven to be a physically addictive substance. It’s a recipe for metabolic disaster—the sugars and highly refined carbohydrates into which corn is made are major causes of juvenile diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, kidney disease and cancer.
The Real Deal
As extreme and unlikely as these flagrantly false foods seem, they are just a few examples of many phonies abounding on the marketplace. Think about “extra virgin” olive oil that’s not, substandard meats, counterfeit coffee, genetically modified plants and livestock, and more.
Eating local food ensures you’re getting real food. Whether you grow it in your garden, forage it, or hunt it, fish it, or buy it at your farmers market, you will know where it came from, and you can be sure it is 100% authentic because you have a direct connection with the creator. You may pay a little more, even when you grow your own, but it pays off in other ways—in food purity, good dirty exercise, beautiful landscapes, deepened relationships with community members, and keeping money circulating locally. And there’s so much wild food to harvest, for free! It takes just a little knowledge to gather nutritious plants and mushrooms (many of which are sold on the gourmet produce counter in fancy stores).
Of course, there are lots of widely faked products we don’t produce locally. EVOO and coffee are two hyper-necessary pantry staples in my world. I now buy only California olive oil, and I get my coffee from Dean’s Beans—Dean meets the farmers in every single country they import from. There are good choices for many foodstuffs we don’t produce here.
To find out more about fake food, take a deep dive into Olmsted’s heavily annotated book, learn more about the engineering of fake food in The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker, and get great advice about what to eat from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Bon appétit!
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.