20 surprisingly common FAKE foods you need to watch out for

What are you really eating?

<p>Slawomir Fajer/Shutterstock</p>

Slawomir Fajer/Shutterstock

Knowing what’s in our food and where it comes from is more important to many of us than ever. But certain ingredients are susceptible to fraudsters who add extra bulk, mislabel products, or substitute products for something else entirely. A 2021 Guardian article suggested that the counterfeit food industry could be worth £35.8 billion ($49bn), while it’s widely believed that much food fraud goes undetected. Here are some of the world’s most forged ingredients, from coffee and olive oil cut with cheaper substances to shocking fake meat and fish scandals.

Olive oil

<p>Elena Veselova/Shutterstock</p>

Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

Extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO, is prized and commands a higher price because it’s the least processed form, with olives ground to a paste and pressed to extract the oil with no use of heat. Its high economic value has made it vulnerable to fraud, with numerous cases of mislabelled and diluted oils – either with lower-grade olive oils or other oils altogether – and instances of olive oils with false geographical claims. In 2019, a staggering 150,000 litres of fake EVOO (low-quality oils that had been modified for colour) were seized after an investigation in Italy and Germany.




Milk is one of the most faked foods, according to the Food Fraud Database, with the most famous instance of deliberate contamination occurring in China in 2008. Baby formula milk had been diluted with water and melamine was added to boost the nitrogen content, resulting in tens of thousands of infants becoming sick and six deaths. Adding water is the most common fraud, increasing the volume and therefore profits.


<p>Jeny Che/Shutterstock</p>

Jeny Che/Shutterstock

Honey is the third most-faked food (after milk and olive oil), according to the Food Fraud Database, with producers using corn syrup, beet sugar or sucrose to dilute the real stuff, or chemically modifying sugars to mimic bees’ honey. Cases of so-called “honey laundering” include the 2013 case dubbed “Operation Honeygate”. The US Justice Department charged two importers, Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms, with shipping fake or adulterated Chinese honey through other countries to avoid shipping duties and avoid revealing its origin. The case ended with Groeb and Honey Holdings entering deferred prosecution agreements.

Balsamic vinegar



Like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Champagne, true balsamic vinegar of Modena has protected geographical indication and must be made in Modena or Reggio Emilia using particular grapes. It owes its much-prized syrupy texture and intense flavour to being aged in oak casks – if the label says 'Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale', this maturation must be for 12 years or more. However a 2019 investigation in Italy uncovered an alleged scam to use lower-grade grapes for vinegar intended to be passed off as the real deal.

Battered fish

<p>Slawomir Fajer/Shutterstock</p>

Slawomir Fajer/Shutterstock

A 2019-published study by researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK found that some battered fish sold in chip shops was in fact meat from the spiny dogfish, a shark species classified as endangered in Europe. Some battered fish sold under generic names including huss, rock, flake and rock salmon was actually rare shark. The study involved analysing the DNA of samples from fishmongers and fish and chip shops, mainly in southern England.


<p>Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock</p>

Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock

Like coffee, tea is vulnerable to fraud because the texture and odours of dried and ground leaves are relatively easy to duplicate, and it’s particularly difficult for customers to discern the difference when they’re packaged in tea bags. A 2014 report in the US by the Congressional Research Service, which looked at the issue of food fraud, lists tea among the ingredients with the most reported cases. Tea, it says, has been found to be bulked out with leaves from other plants, colour additives and dyed sawdust.

Fruit juice

<p>Bon Appetit/Shutterstock</p>

Bon Appetit/Shutterstock

Traditional breakfast drinks appear to be something of a minefield, as fruit juices are also believed to be susceptible to fraud. Several reports suggest that some juices might be made using juice from rotten fruit, which might also be used to dilute fresh juice. A 2013 report by the Food Fraud Database found other instances of juices being diluted with those of other fruits, with pomegranate – which had become popular as a 'superfood' – the most commonly faked. In some cases, products were found to contain no pomegranate whatsoever.




Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a frequent target for food fraudsters. A 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service lists it among the most faked or adulterated ingredients, sometimes bulked up with glycerine, sandalwood dust, barium sulphate and borax, and dyed with tartrazine. Intact threads are far more difficult to fake than powdered saffron, however. Detected cases of fraud include the May 2021 arrest by Spanish police of 17 suspected members of a criminal network that allegedly mixed saffron with other herbs and chemicals.

Black pepper



Specifically, ground black pepper. As with coffee, it’s almost impossible to discern the difference between the pepper and illegitimate additions in powder form. Ingredients found lurking in the shaker or jar include starch, buckwheat, flour, millet and even twigs. Papaya seeds are particularly common substitutes, being near-identical to the naked eye and, once ground, differences are only detectable under a microscope.


<p>New Africa/Shutterstock</p>

New Africa/Shutterstock

Money is obviously the primary incentive when it comes to food fraud, so caviar – among the world’s most expensive ingredients – was always going to be a target. There have been several high-profile cases of the sturgeon roe being faked, and some samples have even proved to contain no animal DNA at all.


<p>U2M Brand/Shutterstock</p>

U2M Brand/Shutterstock

Not whole lobsters – that would be an impressive trick to pull off. But lobster dishes have been found to contain little or no lobster at all. Reporters visited 28 restaurants across the US, from chains to seafood shacks, and found 35% contained cheaper substitutes such as whiting. The results of the investigation, aired in 2013, included the discovery that one restaurant’s 'lobster ravioli' was actually filled with cheese. There have also been instances of fraud relating to the origin of lobsters, such as the importer in South Korea who allegedly sold US-caught lobsters as pricier Canadian crustaceans.


<p>New Africa/Shutterstock</p>

New Africa/Shutterstock

Another pricey, and much-prized ingredient, vanilla is an obvious target for food fraud. Pods are pretty impossible to replicate, but there have been instances of so-called 'pure' vanilla extract actually being blended with cheaper tonka bean extract, which has a very similar taste and aroma. Synthetic vanilla, made from vanillin synthesised in a lab, is frequently used in cheaper vanilla-flavoured extracts but, again, has also been found in those labelled as pure vanilla.


<p>l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock</p>

l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock

The highest-profile wine fraudster is Rudy Kurniawan (known as 'Dr Conti'), who spent seven years in prison from 2013 for selling millions of pounds worth of counterfeit bottles between 2004 and 2012; many sold through auction houses. It’s an extreme example, but lower-level wine fraud is believed to be widespread, with experts estimating that 5% of wines sold are fake. It usually involves lower-quality wines being bottled under the name of a prestigious label or selling a lesser vintage as one that’s far more sought-after.

Lemon sole



A late 2018 report by the New York State Attorney General’s Office revealed that more than a quarter of the seafood sampled from across the state, and 42% of that tested from New York City grocery stores, was mislabelled. The report was the result of a year-long investigation and found that cheaper species were typically labelled as rarer or more expensive ones. The most common culprit was lemon sole, with two of 16 samples accurately labelled.

Red snapper

<p>Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock</p>

Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

The same report also found that red snapper was commonly not, in fact, red snapper. The fake fish was typically sold for around 60% of the price of the real deal, artificially pushing down prices and harming other grocers and fishmongers. Oceana also conducted a nationwide study in the US, finding one in three samples of seafood were mislabelled. Snapper was the most commonly faked with 87% mislabelled, followed by tuna (59%), though it remains unknown at what stage the fraud takes place.




Ground coffee can be an easy target for fraudsters, with lower-quality or less in-demand varieties substituted or mixed in and sold at a high price. Some coffee, including that sold as gourmet grounds from Brazil, has been found to contain cereal grains, brown sugar, roasted corn, parchment paper and even twigs. Ground coffee is considered particularly vulnerable since the appearance, texture and colour is easy to duplicate, though scientists have been working on ways to 'fingerprint' it to determine whether customers are being duped.




Fish fraud strikes again! Grouper was among the most commonly mislabelled fish in the studies by Oceana and the New York State Attorney General’s Office, with the former finding that up to one-third was actually Asian 'catfish', king mackerel or whitefin weakfish. This particular fish was also the subject of a scandal in Florida, when the St. Petersburg Times uncovered cheaper species being sold as grouper in several restaurants. Three eateries in Tampa Bay denied any wrongdoing but agreed they would make sure it didn’t happen in future and each made a payment to the state.


<p>New Africa/Shutterstock</p>

New Africa/Shutterstock

While only one cheese, protected by DOP status, can be legally labelled 'Parmigiano-Reggiano', the label 'Parmesan' can technically be any cow’s milk cheese with a particular rind and texture. However, there have been several instances of even the latter, looser definition being stretched. In 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration began investigating Pennsylvania company Castle Cheese, eventually finding that its '100% real Parmesan' contained Cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella and even wood pulp. The cheese company's executive was sentenced to three years’ probation, a £3,600 ($5,000) fine and 200 hours of community service.




The 'horsemeat scandal' of 2013, uncovering the meat in many different products mostly labelled as containing beef, began with burgers. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland tested beef burgers from a range of supermarkets and found horse DNA in nine out of 10 samples, with one containing as much as 29%. They were immediately removed from sale but the findings sparked a much broader scandal.


<p>Natalia Lisovskaya/Shutterstock</p>

Natalia Lisovskaya/Shutterstock

Oceana also discovered that sushi and sashimi were frequently mislabelled in restaurants – not a single sample of sushi tested from Austin was what it claimed to be, for example, and every sushi venue in Chicago, New York and Washington DC sold at least one mislabelled fish. In total, 74% of samples from sushi venues were incorrectly labelled, a significantly higher percentage than restaurants (38%) and grocery stores (18%). A 2017 report by UCLA revealed that more than 47% of sushi in Los Angeles sushi restaurants wasn't correctly named either.

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