Healthy eating can keep us healthy but what is the health of the foods we eat? Unfortunately, we know very little about the quality of what we ingest. Many of the foods we believe are healthy are not what they say they are. Food fraud, where high value products are replaced by those of lower value, is a consumer’s nightmare.
Food fraud and adulteration can only be eradicated if governments are as willing to regulate these products as stringently as they do pharmaceuticals.
Some of the best known frauds are living in our kitchens: olive oil, fish, honey, milk and dairy products, meat products, grain-based foods, fruit juices, wine and alcoholic beverages, organic foods, spices, coffee, and tea. Olive oil can be thinned out with other cheaper oils such as soybean, corn, peanut, sunflower, safflower or even lard. Red snapper looks like the cheaper tilefish and monkfish might be puffer fish.
With bees in short supply, honey is also at risk. Sugar syrup, corn syrup, fructose, glucose, and beet sugar are regulars, without mention on the labels. Ground coffee may be individually sourced, but the harvesting may have “picked up” leaves and twigs on the way. Tea can contain leaves from other plants, color additives, and tea bags can be “flavoured” with colored saw dust. Milk doesn’t always come from cows. Sheep, buffalo, and goats milk can be added, as well as reconstituted milk powder, urea and rennet.
Fortunately, some of the most serious transgressions are ultimately exposed. Milk that was watered down milk with melamine to artificially raise the protein content and hide the dilution caused so many childhood deaths in China that melamine was eventually banned.
It is not just food where the deceptions occur. Our bodies are also at risk from the supplements we take. These products are largely unregulated and they are considered safe until proven otherwise. They don’t even have to be effective. They just have to avoid making medical claims such as they cure cancer or halt dementia. However, non-specific claims are alright, such as improving energy, wellness, liver health, sexual enjoyment, and weight control.
Currently there are over 80,000 supplements on the market which are available to the unwary user and nearly half the populations of middle income countries use them.
Often they are labelled as “natural” products, making us think that, because they are natural, they are not harmful. In the case of green tea extract, ginseng, and black cohosh, the opposite is true. They all have been shown to cause serious damage to the liver.
Natural products can contain some of the most potent chemicals too. Appetite suppressors, stimulants, antidepressants, anti anxiety agents, diuretics, sexual performance enhancers, anabolic steroids and prohormones (used in muscle building) are present in a range of supplements in unspecified amounts and untested formulations. Ginseng She Lian Wan, for example, which claimed to help alleviate joint pain, arthritis, and gout, is now banned by the FDA as its labs confirmed that it contains dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, and chlorpheniramine.
Whereas pharmaceutical products have to identify all the ingredients and quantities on the label or information sheet, that is not required for supplements.
Food fraud and adulteration are global public health problems that can only be tackled if governments are as willing to regulate these products as stringently as they do pharmaceuticals. A start would be to ensure that all foodstuffs and supplements list the types and amounts of all ingredients not just the eye catching “natural” ones.