Chinese Spice Market - © notjustanotherblondeinbeijing.blogspot

Food Fraud: Can you spot the imposters?

When we posted about fake Olive Oil a few days ago, we didn’t count on a torrent of e-mail pointing up other ‘fake’ food products that people like you and me get sucked into buying every week. Not exactly a ‘Supermarket Dirty Trick’, but… are they aware they’re selling something bogus?

Raw, whole spices in a Beijing Spice Market. That’s the way to go!
Various Sauces and Chill Pastes populate the shelves in rear.

I found a recent Yahoo! blog post covering some of the more blatant food-faking rackets. But I’ve also got a few of my own to pass on…

Luxury products most faked…

As with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the other Italian form of liquid gold, Balsamic Vinegar, is also faked widely. Not so much faked, really, as diluted. Real Balsamico must be aged at least 12 years in oak casks to rate the official label ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’, a special designation similar to those of the Italian wine ‘Denominazione di origine controllata’ programme, which protects the best Italian wines from copycats. Chances are, the stuff you get at the supermarket – a really great price’ – is somehow degraded by fakers somewhere along the line.

Seafood follies…

Believe it or not, it is legal in Canada to sell Flounder as ‘Sole’, unless the fish is labelled Dover Sole – then it had better be the real thing, caught only in the seas around England and France.

We all know that some (many?) Chinese takeout and buffet restaurants sell ‘fake’ Scallops, made from formed pollock or other secondary food-grade fish coloured and texturized to look and taste like Scallops. They make fake Crab meat from the same species of lesser fish using a similar process. At least they label those ‘Artificial’ or ‘Sashimi’ products, and price them modestly, in accordance with their true nature.

What gets me is the persistent mislabeling of cheaper fish as more expensive species. All the big-name, big-price fish are affected to some degree or other but the worst fraud and deception takes place in connection with Tuna, Salmon, Red Snapper and other luxury species. In the shellfish department, the Yahoo! post says unscrupulous operators even ‘manufacture’ big juicy – but fake – sea scallops from big flat fillets of Skate, Ray or Shark meat using a cookie cutter! (Emphasis mine.) Another raging seafood fraud technique involves labeling and selling farmed fish and seafoods as ‘Wild Caught’, and doubling or tripling the price.

Further to the wild/farmed issue, I hate it when seafood comes in frozen and it’s cheap, and you only find out it’s from Thailand or Vietnam or Chile or someplace where they don’t have the same sanitary standards for farmed seafood that we do here. The imagination runs wild with tales of chemical and sewage pollution in Asian Shrimping waters. And what about the packing houses? I just don’t go there.

What to do? Deal only with a trusted local fish monger who may charge you a little more, but will at least be delivering the real goods. Supermarkets may not be the best places to buy fish and seafood. And be sure to peruse our ‘judging freshness’ post from some time back before going shopping…


The world’s honey bee population has been hit hard over the past decade by widely-circulating bee viruses that have wiped out whole colonies and contamination from pesticides used on the crops from which the bees gather nectar and pollen. This has caused a double-whammy situation for honey producers, packagers and marketers. There’s a shortage of honey because of the disease and pesticide situation. But the demand continues to grow and prices for real honey are rising due to the shortage. the temptation to fake is overwhelming for some money-mad fraud artists. To fill the demand, some folks in the middle of the packaging and shipping chain have taken to diluting and adulterating honey with liquid sugars like sugar syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Others simply import substandard honey from third world countries and label it as more-expensive, more desirable specialty brands.

What to do? Buy your honey from small, local producers, like you’ll meet at the Farmer’s Market.


There’s a lot of fraud in some corners of the Herb and Spice market, as well.

Saffron – the world’s costliest spice at about $2,000.00 per pound ($2,200.00 / kg) is the most, and most lucratively, faked spice. Always buy the real, whole fibres. The powdered stuff may well be adulterated with 50 per cent or more non-saffron ingredients. And you’ll certainly taste the difference.

Cinnamon is also frequently faked with cheaper, more abundant Cassia bark. Looks similar and tastes similar, but it doesn’t have the depth and nuance of real Cinnamon. Real Cinnamon is darker and more fragrant that Cassia. Once you’ve tasted them side by side, you’ll never be fooled again.

Specialty Salts are starting to be faked. Adding colour or altering the texture of plain old table Salt can up the price many times – and most people can’t tell the difference between Pink Himalayan and died Windsor.

Chocolate is a commodity that’s increased in price tremendously over the past few years. Hence, the temptation to fake it with cheaper, similar products or artificial additives. Carob Bean is the best-known ‘chocolate substitute’ on the market and some folks use it simply because it’s much cheaper. Any processed food product you buy at the store, labeled ‘Chocolatey Flavour’ or something similar, may well have Carob or a combination artificial flavourings and colourings in it instead of real Chocolate or Cocoa.

Vanilla, according to the Yahoo! post, is the second-most-expensive spice in the world and the second-most-faked. Even trusted brands of real Vanilla Extract have been found to have been adulterated with artificial flavouring and colouring somewhere between the extraction room and the labeling machine.

Most importantly, beware the difference between ‘artificial’ and ‘pure’ vanilla extract. The artificial stuff is a mixture of alcohol, water, caramel colour and chemicals I can’t even pronounce (sometimes masquerading under the trade-name ‘Vanillin’). The active ingredient in real, pure vanilla comes only from the natural Vanilla bean. When in doubt, buy the real beans (even though they’re two to a glass tube package for about $8.00!) or stick with a liquid proudly labeled ‘Pure Vanilla Extract’.


Some powdered Herbs, including Oregano, Basil, Sage, Rosemary and others, are routinely bulked up with things like ground up stems, other, cheaper herbs – such as Parsely – and non-herb vegetation that won’t harm you but won’t do you much good either – and isn’t what you paid for! I’ve even heard horror stories about sawdust, toasted parchment paper and other non-food adulterants. Just stay away from the powdered stuff. It’s probably stale on top of everything else. And use whole-seed or whole-berry spices and fresh herbs whenever possible.

Moral(s) of the story…

1. If a price for something like Saffron or Cocoa or Vanilla seems too good to be true – it probably isn’t the real stuff in the package.

2. Get your foods – whatever they may be – direct from the producer or someone not too far removed from the producer.

3. Read the label closely and educate yourself about how to spot fakes.

4. Know your meat and fish. You should be able to judge the freshness and quality of any protein product without resorting to labels. Can you tell a Haddock fillet from a piece of Halibut?

~ Maggie J.