Food Fraud: The Substitutes We Never Know About

By Wesley Fenlon

If a food seems too cheap and too good to be true, it's probably got some funky additives in the mix.

Every year there's a new hot topic in food processing, some once-believed-innocent ingredient that will make us fat or unhealthy put us in an early grave. High fructose corn syrup is everywhere, replacing more natural sweetening agents and giving thousands of food a nice sugary flavor. Our carb-heavy grains are full of trans fats that are bad for the heart. MSG's unhealthy effects grabbed so much of the public consciousness Chinese restaurants had to assure their customers they weren't using too much.

But bad ingredients are only part of the problem with mass-produced foods. Sometimes it's not some awful chemical we need to look out for--it's just plain old label fraud. Smithsonian Mag posted a list of six not-what-they-appear-to-be foods on Monday, and odds are you regularly consume one (or more) of the items included.

Turns out liquids are especially susceptible to being fakes or watered-down. Last year, as pomegranate became especially popular, juicemakers watered it down with cheaper juices from pears or grapes. Smithsonian Mag's list includes some surprising elements--apparently Olive Oil has been cut down with soybean and other oils for decades or even centuries. And the fraud goes beyond that: the Fake Food Watch blog recently posted about life leaf oil being marketed like modern day cure-all snake oil. It can even cure malaria!

Cheap imported honey has recently been filled with antibiotics to keep it safe and corn syrup to keep it sweet. Wasabi is sometimes just horseradish, a little mustard and some food coloring passing as the real thing. The newly minted Food Fraud Database keeps track of complaints about "contaminated" foods--just search for an ingredient like wheat and see the scary list of adulterants that you're probably eating along with a slice of bread or bowl of cereal.