Where Is My Olive Oil?
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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works to prevent and catch food fraud. Despite their efforts, there is still a chance some food items you buy may not be the ‘pure’ or ‘100%’ products they claim to be on their label. Cost-driven food fraud is believed to affect 1% of the global food market at a price of around $10-$15 billion a year. Some more recent estimates expect the number to be as high as $40 billion a year. It occurs when someone leaves out, takes out, or switches out a part of a food product to save money. This also includes adding something to a food to make it appear better or of greater value in order to sell it for more money. Common items that sellers may dilute include shelf-stable products like olive oil, maple syrup, and honey. Cheaper plant oils like corn can be added to olive oil, while honey and maple syrup can be mixed with high fructose corn syrup or other low-cost sweeteners.
Based on what is added or taken away, cost-driven food fraud can be harmful. It most often becomes harmful when added or switched items are not safe to eat. Yet, this is not always the case. Olive oil is known to have heart-healthy benefits but research shows many other liquid vegetable oils make good substitutes, too. Honey and maple syrup are thought of as ‘good’ sweeteners while high fructose corn syrup is often thought of as ‘bad’, despite research showing they all have close amounts of glucose and fructose. They are also shown to impact the body in the same way, meaning sugar is sugar in any form. If you are buying a certain item for its health benefits, know which form to buy and buy from a trusted source. Raw honey can contain antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Even so, most honey on the shelves has been processed and lost these nutrients when refined.
The one way this kind of food fraud always affects the public is cost. Olive oil and honey are more costly than the products they might be mixed with. If you spend more for olive oil, then you want to get what you paid for. One of the best ways to ensure you are getting a true product is to buy items with lots of details about their origin, the more detailed the better. Foods that can be traced back to a certain region or farm are more likely to be pure. A trusted brand can also be a sign. Some brands will post more data on their website and may even do extra testing that can be found online. Price can also show if a product might not be pure. If the price seems too low for a certain food, it may be altered.
The FDA works to detect food fraud and stop those who commit it. One way is to perform routine or chosen sampling. They choose an item at random or choose an item believed to be altered and test different samples to see if the content and label match. Testing is costly though, so most food fraud is found through outside reports that the FDA collects. These include shopper complaints, news stories, outside research, and papers from subject matter experts. Shoppers can report packaged foods, produce, and fish to the FDA. Complaints about meat, poultry, and eggs can be sent to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is crucial that buyers report items they believe to be part of this food fraud to get them in front of the FDA or USDA and out of our food supply.
If you find or buy an item you believe is part of food fraud, you can report it here:
Packaged foods, produce, and fish: NC Food & Drug Protection Division
Meat, poultry and eggs: USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service
If you want to learn more about intentional food fraud, please check these resources:
- FDA: Economically Motivated Adulteration (Food Fraud)
- Safeguarding Consumers from Olive Oil Fraud
- European Review of Agricultural Economics: Consumers’ responses to food fraud risks: an economic experiment
- Food Fraud Prevention Think Tank
- American Heart Association: The benefits of adding a drizzle of olive oil to your diet
- University of California San Francisco: The Sweet Science of Honey
- Global Journal of Nutrition & Food Science: A True Comparison of Processed vs ‘Natural’ Sugars
This article was written by Elizabeth Weathers, Nutrition and Dietetics Intern.