Beware of fake ingredients in your food

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Buyer beware: foods you routinely eat, like fish, are also routinely forged

Look, it’s the dead of winter here in Dayton and the skies are gray and cloudy, and it’s cold. So if you, like me, are already suffering from depression about the weather, this is not going to cheer you up. It might even put you off of your feed, as my husband says. And actually, I hope that it does—the fake kind of feed anyway. What do I mean by fake feed? Sadly, what follows is a long and not nearly complete list of things you routinely eat that are not what you think they are. What you are eating ranges from surprising to gross to downright dangerous.

Sometimes with a little consumer awareness you can avoid falling victim to a food scam. In other cases, you are pretty much food screwed, and left with no choice but to pass on that particular item. Some of these things on the list will not be any surprise; there’s been ample public outcry about many of them. Yet, it’s surprising how many of what’s listed might be news to you. And further surprising how little is being or can be done to stop food fakery, despite U.S. regulations. And some of it comes down to consumers simply not knowing that what they are purchasing is not what they assumed it was. The bottom line for those items is eater beware. If you’ve got the stomach for it, here are some examples:


Blueberries? Yep, foods like imitation blueberries actually exist, thanks to a concoction of dextrose, palm kernel oil, flour, citric acid, cellulose gum, artificial flavors, and artificial red and blue dyes. Read the label when you buy a baking mix, and if it says imitation, you won’t be getting real fruit.


I said this was going to be a buzzkill. Chocolate is a blend of cocoa beans, cocoa solids, and cocoa butter. Some products like Milk Duds and Mr. Goodbar swapped cocoa butter for less expensive vegetable oil. Removing cocoa butter violates the FDA’s definition of milk chocolate, so if it doesn’t say “milk chocolate,” it isn’t. Instead you will see “chocolate candy.”


Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, with an ounce priced higher than an ounce of gold. It’s derived from the bright red stamens of a certain crocus flower, and is routinely faked using dyed threadlike plant material. Oregano often contains weeds, turmeric has been found to contain corn, and nutmeg has been cut with pepper. What to do? Oregano can be easily gown at home, and whole nutmeg and turmeric root are available to buy whole instead of bottled. As for saffron, the test is to put a few threads in your mouth then rub them with a tissue to see if it turns the tissue yellow. If so, you’re golden.

Fruit juice

Most consumers are aware that when you buy a fruit juice it’s not 100 percent made from that fruit, and that the most likely add in is apple juice. Sounds fine, except that even though it’s real apple juice, the vast majority of apple juice sold in the United States is from Chinese-made concentrate, which has repeatedly been found to contain banned pesticides and other chemicals.

Red snapper and grouper

Larry Olmsted, in his book “Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating And What You Can Do About It,” writes a lot about fish. His advice is to avoid buying red snapper altogether, noting places trying to pass off cheaper fish in its place. The same is true for grouper. Why is this such a big deal? It’s often substituted with mercury-rich tilefish, which is on the FDA’s do-not-eat list for sensitive groups such as children and pregnant women.


If you’re getting lobster from some chains like Red Lobster, there’s a chance you’re actually eating langoustine, which refers to a different species of crustacean with a similar taste—but not lobster.


There are no standards right now determining what does and doesn’t actually qualify as honey. There are currently no prohibitions or penalties against selling honey diluted with cheap sweeteners, like high-fructose corn syrup, or even illegal antibiotics. Best advice is stick with honey you find at a farmer’s market and read the label.

Olive oil

Sadly, this is one of the greatest offenders, and one that I’ve written about before. Television’s 60 Minutes did an exposé segment tracing a great deal of the problems to the Italian mafia. So much olive oil is cut with other oils and not labeled that way, causing real health risks to people with allergies. Most of what you see in supermarkets is not 100 percent authentic. So what to do? Look for bottles labeled “estate bottled (wherever the oil comes from)” and come to terms with the fact that real olive oil is not inexpensive. A cheap oil is always adulterated in some way.

Parmesan cheese

Real Parmesan cheese comes from one place—Parma, Italy. It’s tightly controlled and if the package is stamped “made in Parma,” you can trust it. Wood shavings are one of the nastier ingredients that have been found in fake Parmesan cheese produced here in the U.S. As with olive oil, you will pay more, but won’t risk getting a splinter in your mouth.

Maple syrup

Real maple syrup is harvested seasonally from the sap of a maple tree and follows a strict grading scale based on color. Anything labeled “maple-flavored syrup” or “table syrup,” on the other hand, is high-fructose corn syrup blended with chemical compounds and thickeners like cellulose gum. Mrs. Butterworth is basically a fraud.


This one hits home for me. Tea, according to a Congressional Research Service report, was found to have sawdust and leaves from other plants to make some teas last longer.


Ground coffee is often cut with cheaper substances, like twigs, roasted corn, ground roasted barley, and even roasted ground parchment, according to Olmsted’s research. Powdered instant is even worse. So, go buy a coffee grinder and some beans.

There you have it, folks. I’m hearing the strains of Roger Daltrey singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in my head as I write this week’s shopping list. Keep what you’ve read in mind as you write yours.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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