A video about easy tests for food fraud went viral on Facebook on 1st Jun 2019. It purports to show how consumers can test for real and fake foods at home. Food fraud is estimated to affect 10% of all foods worldwide, so it’s a pretty big problem. At Food Fraud Advisors we are in favour of increasing awareness about food fraud but that particular video is not a good way to do it; it’s full of scare tactics and misinformation.
Much of video in question, published by First Media under their banner Blossom is based on online articles published in India, where food fraud and unethical food business practices are a massive problem that presents both economic and public health risks. In that country, it is not uncommon for powdered tea to be dyed with textile dyes and for ghee (clarified butter) to be adulterated with undeclared vegetable oil. Likewise, there is a long history of adulteration of dairy products like milk with chemicals such as urea which is added to trick protein tests, vegetable oil and sugar. Sadly, in that country, as in other developing countries, it is also common for some fruits, vegetables and dried pulses to be dyed with undeclared chemical dyes.
In India, consumers and government authorities are very aware of food fraud and there is much information online for consumer ‘fraud detection’ tests that can be done at home. Many of the ‘tests’ in the Blossom video appear to be based on these methods. Most of them don’t work, or show chemical characteristics that are not evidence of fraud or fakery.
Food fraud occurs more often in developed countries in North America, Europe and Australia, than many people might imagine. However, it rarely occurs in the ways that are shown in the video Is your food fake or real? Find out with these 16 easy tests. Lets take a closer look at each of the ‘tests’ in the video with Karen Constable, Food Fraud Advisors Principal Consultant, a food scientist and food fraud specialist.
Melting ‘plastic cheese’
The first part of the video shows a person holding a naked flame to processed cheese and claims this shows that it contains chemicals. It’s tempting to imagine that all food manufacturers are evil multinationals full of mad, greedy scientists. But the reason that food companies make and sell processed cheese is because it is convenient to use and it melts really beautifully, so people buy it. Some people even buy it for the taste! To achieve the pliable, smooth texture and perfect melting profile loved by consumers, manufacturers add emulsifiers when they make processed cheese. The emulsifiers tightly bind the protein and fat in the cheese and this means that it behaves differently to non-processed cheese when exposed to a cigarette lighter. No kidding. This video by Kraft food scientists explains it perfectly: https://youtu.be/OTH11_oPT20. Conclusion; processed cheese melts differently to unprocessed cheese and that’s why we buy it! Conclusion: this is not a test for ‘fake’ food.
This part of the video shows a non-stick pan with rice grains interspersed with other white particles that turn clear as the pan is heated. Rumours of plastic rice have surfaced in various developing countries a number of times since 2011, however none have been substantiated. There have been credible reports of sacks of rice within large shipments being replaced with sacks of other materials, including paper pellets, sweet potato pellets or plastic resin, to increase the apparent value of the shipment, however there is no evidence that this ‘fake’ rice ever reached consumers. Food scientists and government authorities in India have investigated but never found plastic rice. However they acknowledge that rice in India has occasionally been adulterated with chemicals, including boric acid, to close its pores and make it appear shinier and brighter. These chemicals could give the rice a strange texture or behave strangely when cooked. This occurs only very rarely.
Rice-like granules made from plastic resins would be completely unchanged by cooking in boiling water, which does not match descriptions provided by consumers who claim to have cooked ‘fake rice’. In the video, the melting crystals in the pan look like something you could buy in a see-through window art hobby kit. Just sayin’. Conclusion: Reports of consumers cooking or eating plastic rice have never been substantiated. This is not a test for ‘fake’ food.
Black calcium rocks in baby food
The ‘rocks in baby food’ part of the video is a great example of how “a little learning is a dangerous thing” (Alexander Pope, 1709). In the video, a person runs a magnet over a plastic bag of baby food and collects black particles. Baby food manufacturers deliberately and legally add minerals like calcium and iron to their products, a practice which is called ‘fortification’. Babies (and adults) need these minerals to grow and thrive. The minerals used to fortify foods do ultimately come from the earth’s crust, so it’s probably fair – though somewhat disingenuous – to claim that they are ‘crushed up rocks’. It is indeed possible to get tiny black particles out of fortified foods with a magnet, as you can see in this awesome food science experiment by Scientific American. However, the magnetic particles are iron, not calcium; calcium is not magnetic. (Food scientists around the word give a collective face-palm). Conclusion: Minerals added to baby food keep babies alive. Black stuff in baby food is not calcium, it is iron and it is supposed to be present. Conclusion: this is not a test for ‘fake’ food.
My gosh where do I start with this one? In the video, a person puts a collection of different coloured and shaped pills and capsules on a tray in an oven and shows some of them bubbling and melting. Put any collection of different pills in the oven and they will behave differently. That’s because they contain different things. Legitimate, authentic vitamins and supplements contain fillers, active ingredients and casings that have both high melting points, low melting points and many different kinds of smoking, burning and bubbling behaviours when heated. The video claims ‘Synthetic supplements burn; natural supplements don’t‘ but if I made a ‘fake’ pill with chalk or talcum powder it most certainly wouldn’t melt or burn in a domestic oven.
This video is the perfect visual ‘filler’; no real claims, no real evidence, I didn’t even find a historical or anecdotal basis for this one. Having said that, there have been credible reports of supplements containing smaller quantities of authentic ingredients than they claimed to contain. Worse, there have been cases of supplements that have been spiked with illegal and undeclared drugs to boost their efficacy. Conclusion: supplement fraud does occur, but the oven test in the video will not reveal ‘fake’ supplements.
Glue in meat
In most countries, it is legal to add binders, enzymes and edible ‘glues’ to processed meats and most of those ingredients must be declared on the package. It is not legal to add chunks of ‘fake’ fatty substances to meat pieces and then sell them as if they were whole cuts. The video shows what looks like a whole cut of meat, possibly lamb, with fat and connective tissue on and within the muscle. (Yes, meat is animal muscle, people!) The meat and fat is prodded and pulled by a fork to supposedly show ‘glue’.
Why on earth a food company would bother making fake, unappealing grisly, fatty bits to add to their ‘whole’ cuts of meat is beyond me; it would be expensive, technically difficult and result in an undesirable product. Having said that, there are legal and safe enzymes, including transglutaminase that can be used to bind muscle pieces to make larger pieces of meat. Pulling such meat apart with a fork would not reveal enzymic binders like transglutaminase. If binders are present, this ‘test’ would do nothing to reveal them. Conclusion: this is not a test for ‘fake’ food.
Bubbling ice cream
I wish I had some ice cream and bicarbonate of soda with me now so I could try to replicate this trick. The video shows ‘bad’ ice cream which bubbles if you douse it with lemon juice, supposedly because it contains washing powder. The basis for this myth is probably the very sad situation in India in which local, small-volume suppliers of fresh cows milk have been caught adding detergent to the milk. The adulteration makes the milk look fresh and foamy when poured from small milk cans into the larger containers used to collect local milk supplies in rural areas. As for ice cream, I only found one obscure Indian post that suggests washing powder might be found in ice cream. Perhaps instead, this is a nod to an incident in which noodles were adulterated non-approved optical brighteners in Vietnam. Optical brighteners make things look whiter and are found in washing powder.
When it comes to making bubbles with lemon juice, ice cream would need to contain a significant amount of washing powder to achieve the result shown in the video; a small amount of adulteration with washing powder is unlikely to be detectable with lemon juice while a large amount of washing powder would affect the product in other ways, including changing taste. Let me assure you that of all the food frauds you might encounter in a developed country, washing powder in ice cream is not one of them: I guarantee that even an unethical ice cream manufacturer is much too smart to feed their consumers washing powder. Conclusion: this would be a fun experiment. It is not a test for ‘fake’ food.
Testing for rice in milk with seaweed
In this part of the video, seaweed is mixed into milk that is said to contain ‘rice water’ and the liquid turns blue. In most – if not all – countries, it is illegal to add rice to milk without declaring it on the label. As bizarre as this seems, this ‘test’ is actually plausible: rice starch would make a good adulterant for milk powder in developing countries and seaweed naturally contains iodine which forms blue-black-coloured reactants when exposed to starch, including the starch found in rice. However I am not sure that seaweed contains enough iodine to produce the strong blue colour in the video. Conclusion: if you had reason to believe that your milk contained a significant quantity of rice, this test might actually work. But note that if you live in North America, Europe, Australia or New Zealand, the chances of your milk containing rice water is vanishingly small.
Floating coffee grounds
Ground coffee containing ‘additives’ is shown floating on water in this part of the video, which claims that pure ground coffee will sink quickly. I don’t know enough about ground coffee to confirm or deny the claims that fresher coffee floats more than stale coffee due to its carbon dioxide content or not, however it sounds plausible to my food scientist brain, as does the claim that different degrees of roasting will result in different densities after grinding. However I do know that there are many historical records of both coffee beans and ground coffee being adulterated with cheaper fillers like sticks, stones and corn husk to increase profits, most commonly in developing countries.
Coffee consumers in wealthy countries are unlikely to be affected by this type of food fraud. It is possible that consumers in poor countries could detect adulterants like corn husks or undeclared chicory in ground coffee using a ‘float’ test but I can’t confirm that such a test would be accurate or repeatable. Conclusion: this test might be able to reveal certain unexpected contaminants in coffee grounds, however it is unlikely to be reliable.
Cloudy ‘fake’ salt
Sadly, there have been reports of industrial grade salt being repackaged as food grade salt in some African countries in recent years. The video claims that if the water turns cloudy when you dissolve table salt that the salt contains chalk and is ‘fake’. The test in the video is not effective, but chalky salt would be easy to identify: if salt contained chalk it would leave undissolved powder in the bottom of the glass when added to water. Authentic, pure salt will result in cloudy water if the salt has been shaken with air before adding to water or if the water is warm and contains dissolved air before the salt is added. Chalk in salt is NOT a common type of food fraud, probably because chalk powder (calcium carbonate) is up to ten times more expensive than salt. Conclusion: this ‘test’ is a trick that can be done with pure salt.
Illegal dyes in tea, peas and sweet potatoes
Unfortunately, unscrupulous food sellers have been known to add undeclared, illegal colourants to food. If you live in North America, Europe or Australia you are most likely to have encountered this type of food fraud in olive oil, green olives or chilli powder. There isn’t a lot of evidence of it occurring frequently in dried peas, which are shown in the video being cooked in water that turns a pale green colour. Tea that is claimed to be ‘impure’ is also shown leaching colour in the video. In some countries, authorities have seized tea powder that contains illegal dyes or other materials such as brick dust. As for rubbing sweet potatoes with cotton wool, which is done in the video to supposedly prove the presence of illegal dye, I’m not at all surprised to see red colour on the cotton after it has been rubbed on the sweet potato.
In my country (Australia) our tubers often have a reddish colour on their surface from the red-coloured soil in which they were grown. Illegal dye-ing of fresh produce is thought to occur very rarely if ever in wealthy countries. In poorer countries it does occur but is most frequent in produce for which quality and price are determined by the intensity of colour of the fruit or vegetable. Sweet potatoes are less frequently affected than table grapes or leafy greens. Conclusion: this ‘test’ is a trick that relies on red soil found naturally on the surface of some sweet potatoes.
In this part of the video, two spoonfuls of ground turmeric are exposed to a naked flame. One burns more readily than the other and the video claims that ‘pure’ spice burns more easily than impure spice. It is interesting that the video makers chose turmeric to represent spices because it has been associated with numerous recalls due to adulteration with lead-containing colourants in the USA. This is very worrying given turmeric’s current popularity as a ‘health’ product in North America and Europe. The lead colourant used to adulerate turmeric is bright yellow and enhances the colour of the turmeric, increasing its apparent value and hence its price. This type of fraud is not common but does occur in developed countries as well as developing countries.
As for the test, it is possible, though unlikely, that adulterated turmeric powder would consistently burn in a different way to authentic, pure turmeric powder. It is more likely that the moisture and oil content of each ‘batch’ or brand of powdered spice would result in different burning characteristics. Conclusion: adulterated turmeric might behave differently to pure turmeric when burnt however the test is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of purity.
Honey candle trick
I am sorry to say that adulterating honey by adding water, sugars and syrups is a practice that is as old as human trade. Honey is valuable and adulterating honey, or diluting it with water is profitable, making it an attractive food fraud. You can read more about the long and sordid history of food fraud in honey here. In this part of the video, two samples of honey are applied to candle wicks and the wicks lit. One candle burns properly while the other doesn’t. I don’t know anyone who has tried burning honey on a candle wick, but it sounds fun (I’m beginning to wonder if the people who made this video are closet pyromaniacs!)
I have no reason to doubt that putting pure honey on a candle wick will result in a good flame. Likewise if you put watered-down honey on a candle wick it seems very likely that the water in the honey will stop the wick from burning. So this test seems somewhat plausible. However, what we don’t know is (1) how much water do you have to add to pure honey for it to stop a candle wick from burning and (2) what about all the other types of honey fraud; the ones that don’t involve adding water? Honey fraud can include the addition of other sugars, syrups and colours, rather than the addition of water. Misrepresentation of variety, geographical origin and organic status are also common types of honey fraud. These could not be detected using the candle wick test. Conclusion: this test will show if your honey has lots of moisture in it but is not a reliable indicator of authenticity or adulteration.
Oil in butter test
In the video, it is claimed that if butter contains oil then adding sugar to the mix will result in a pink colour. This is not true; try it yourself! The claims are based on a test published in Indian media for checking the purity of ghee. Ghee is clarified butter and used commonly in Indian cooking. By law, ghee should not contain anything except butter fat. Unfortunately there is a long history of ghee fraud in countries where it is popular. Often the fraud occurs when an unauthorized manufacturer counterfeits an expensive brand which can be sold for a high price. This ‘fake’ ghee isn’t really ‘fake’ but it does often contain vegetable oils, which are cheaper than butter fat. There are articles published in Indian media that explain how to check ghee for the presence of vegetable oil by adding hydrochloric acid and sugar. I haven’t been able to confirm or deny the efficacy of that test. However, without the hydrochloric acid it most certainly won’t work! Conclusion: the test shown in the video is not a legitimate test and it wouldn’t work as a test for ‘fake’ food.
Wax on fruit
Have you ever bought an apple from the farm gate, or picked one yourself to take home and eat later? Freshly picked apples taste great but if you keep them for more than a few days they soon lose their freshness and begin to shrink and become soft. This is because apples, like many fruits and vegetables, start to lose moisture from the moment they are picked. To prevent this, fruit growers apply a thin layer of edible wax to retain moisture and keep the produce fresh and tasty. The wax is inert and safe to eat. In the video a fresh, juicy bell pepper, also known as a sweet pepper or capsicum, is dipped into a bowl of warm water and a significant quantity of what looks like vegetable oil can be seen floating on the surface of the water afterwards.
I am not sure if the video is actually depicting fruit-coating wax, since I have never observed this much oily substance coming off any fruit or vegetable. However it is true that bell peppers and many other fresh fruits and vegetables are routinely coated with wax. And I am glad of it, since I don’t have time to drive to an apple orchard every time I want a fresh, crisp apple. Conclusion: this is not a test for ‘fake’ food.
Food fraud does occur in both wealthy and developing countries, but almost never in the ways shown in the video. When it does occur, unfortunately it is difficult for consumers to identify at home.
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