Food fraud – olive oil

Food fraud is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency have been on the rise. From counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil to intentional adulteration of spices and the manufacturing of fake honey, food fraud has been estimated to be a $US40 billion a year industry. In a series of posts we will cover a range of recent issues.

Olive oil is second in our series on fraudulent food

Olive oil bottleSimilar to honey, which we covered in a previous post, food fraud involving olive oil has been around for millennia and remains among the top five food tampering issues.

Ancient Rome established an international trade in olive oil, and instituted elaborate mechanisms to prevent fraud. Olive oil fraud continues today, though modern governments are often less thorough and effective than the Romans at preventing it.

Olive oil has long been one of the most frequently adulterated products in the European Union, and equally in America where olive oil has been adulterated with soybean and seed oils,

Examples of adulterated olive oil

In Europe, common cheating involves mixing extra virgin olive oil with lower-grade olive oil or with virgin olive oil that has been sitting around since the previous year’s harvest or longer. Although the latter is not illegal, by the time that bottle reaches the store its quality has deteriorated.

In November 2015, seven of Italy’s best-known olive oil companies were investigated for allegedly passing off inferior quality virgin olive oil as extra virgin. Of 20 brands tested in the laboratory by specialists from the Italian customs agency, nine were found to be lower quality oil.

New methods of chemical refinement, commonly known as “deodorisation,” allow unscrupulous producers to remove sensory defects found in other oils. Thus a recent study confirmed that quite a lot of the olive oil available in the USA had been fraudulently cut with other oils like peanut, canola and sunflower.

Grades of olive oil

So what is olive oil and how is the different qualities defined? Bare with me, as classification of different olive oils gets a little complicated.

Olive treesFirst, let’s make the obvious clear that olive oil is the oil obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L.) without the addition of any other vegetable oils (or animal fats for that matter).

Second, olive oil is classified according to the method of production and the resulting properties of the oil. Depending on the quality it can be used in cooking, whether for frying or as a salad dressing, in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps, and as a fuel for traditional oil lamps.

Third, to be called olive oil in retail it cannot be extracted using solvents (see olive pomace oil) or undergo re-esterification processes.

Thus, we have the following broad categories of oils produced from olives.

Virgin olive oil obtained by mechanical means only under conditions that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.

Refined olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial fat structure but unfortunately removes some of the beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols found in virgin olive oils.

Olive oil consists of a blend of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils fit for consumption.

Olive pomace oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace (the olive pulp left after the first press) with solvents or other physical treatments.

The different categories of olive oils and olive pomace oils are named and defined by the International Olive Council (IOC) according to physico-chemical characteristics including organoleptic quality (taste to you and me).

Extra virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, and is of higher quality: it contains no more than 0.8% free acidity and it has a superior taste, having some fruitiness and no defined sensory defects. Extra virgin olive oil is better than virgin olive oil with 2% free acidity and some sensory defects allowed. And virgin olive oil is better than ordinary virgin olive oil with 3.3% free acidity and further sensory defects allowed.

Further down the quality scale we find the lampante virgin olive oil with more than 3.3% free acidity intended for technical use unless further refined, and the olive oil consisting of a blend of original and refined virgin oil fit for human consumption.

Also olive pomace oil is split into quality categories. Crude olive pomace oil is the initial output destined for further refinement producing refined olive pomace oil with not more than 0.3% free acidity or as is for technical use. Finally, olive pomace oil is the blend of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oil fit for human consumption with not more than 1% of free acidity.

How to avoid inferior products

After all that what can a consumer do as there is ample room for deception along the production chain.

Olive oil certificationIn the USA, not an official signatory to the standards prescribed by the IOC, not much as the product could easily have been diluted by other vegetable oils. However, if you look for the “COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal from the California Olive Oil Council for California-made oils you will be on the safe side as their standards and certification program is even stricter than the IOC’s.

In Europe, you are also on your own as olive oils claimed to originate from Italy, considered to be of the best quality, are often mixed with olive oil from large producing countries like Spain, Greece or Turkey. You could look for a third party certification seal. In particular, the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP), Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) and Consorzio Olivicolo Italiano (UNAPROL), the respected Italian olive growers’ association.

If you are in Australia or Chile or go for imported Australian or Chilean olive oil you are blessed. It is going to be fresh and untainted. Australia has the most stringent standards and a highly advanced testing system, and neither country mixes in carryover oil from the previous harvest.

Why is this important?

The most obvious fact is that you should get what you pay for.

Part of what makes virgin olive oil so valuable is its many touted health benefits. Rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, olive oil can lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure while stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation in the body.

Olive oil on breadIf you pay for extra virgin olive oil because you prefer its taste and potential health benefits this is what you should get. It is nothing inherently wrong with ordinary olive oil except that the taste is more bland and the amount of beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols is significantly reduced.

If you are after high quality olive oil go for extra virgin on the label. Avoid anything labeled “virgin,” “light,” “pure,” or just “olive oil”.

If a label indicates the producer or estate, or the variety of olive used, it’s very likely genuine.

Look for a third-party certification seal, and avoid cheap deals, although expensive doesn’t automatically mean quality.

And trust your taste buds. Fraudulent olive oil might taste greasy, rancid, flavourless, or just not pleasant. Extra virgin olive oil should smell and taste green, bright, peppery, earthy and grassy. It might be too late to avoid the bargain olive oil you already purchased but at least you can avoid the brand in the future.

Food fraud – fake honey

Food fraud is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency have been on the rise. From counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil to intentional adulteration of spices and the manufacturing of fake honey, food fraud has been estimated to be a $US40 billion a year industry. In a series of posts we will cover a range of recent issues.

First cab off the rank is fake honey.

honey_(Hillary_Stein)The brutal reality is adulterated honey is big business. It is all too easy to cheat by diluting honey with cheap sugar syrup substitutes, such as rice syrups, corn syrups, high fructose corn syrups and acid inverted sugar syrups. It can also be adulterated with natural syrups such as maple, cane sugar and molasses.

This is nothing new as food fraud experts point out that honey is one of the most commonly mislabelled foods around the world. After enough scandals involving cheap adulterated Chinese honey flooding the American market, the US Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff tariffs on Chinese honey in 2001 to try to stop it from being imported. That just meant that the Chinese honey was laundered through other Asian and some European countries before finding its way to the American market.

A new scandal erupted in mid 2018 as researchers determined that almost half the honey sold on Australian supermarket shelves was fake honey.

China is a common source for the sugar syrup culprits with Chinese websites selling them with claims that they can pass various official honey tests (see below).

Destroying the good name of honey

Humans have been harvesting honey for more than 6,000 years. It has been used as both a food and a medicine. Historically, people have used it to sweeten food and make fermented beverages like mead. Today it is also used in industrial food processing of baked products, confectionary, candy, marmalades, jams, spreads, breakfast cereals, beverages, milk products and many preserved products.

Honey is also considered to carry health properties. It contains a number of antioxidants, including phenolic compounds like flavonoids, that have been linked to reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and some types of cancer.

Honey seems to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. It leads to modest reductions in total and “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising “good” HDL cholesterol. Several studies show that honey can lower triglyceride levels, especially when used as a sugar substitute.  Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Honey also has antimicrobial properties. When applied to the skin, honey can be part of an effective treatment plan for burns, wounds and many other skin conditions. It is particularly effective for diabetic foot ulcers.

For children over one year of age, honey can act as a natural and safe cough suppressant. Some studies show that it is even more effective than cough medicine.

Destroying the business for beekeepers

Honey_bee_(Jon_Sullivan)Substituting cheap sugar syrups for honey would negate many of the positive properties of honey. If that is not bad enough it makes it difficult for beekeepers to compete and threaten the survival of bees. No bees – a starving world, it’s as simple as that.

Bees and other pollinators fertilise three-quarters of global food crops and have seen severe declines in recent decades, due to loss of habitat, disease and harmful pesticides. In the UK, wild honey bees are nearly extinct, solitary bees are declining in more than half the areas studied and some species of bumblebee have been lost altogether.

The large bee losses reported worldwide over the last decades have stimulated a lot of research on the monitoring of bees and the potential causes of the losses including pathogens, pests, diseases, nutrition, pesticides, habitat and climate changes. During this process, extensive datasets have been generated and collated on honeybee losses that have been linked to diseases, pests and pathogens in Europe and North America. Less is known about the situation for solitary bees and bumblebees.

Fake honey is a further nail in the coffin.

Beating the cheaters

Many of the syrups sold by the Chinese promises to be able to beat what’s called a C4 sugar test, which is the official test used in Australia and many other countries for testing of honey adulteration.

Sugars produced from tropical plants like sugar cane and maize/corn are produced using a photosynthetic pathway referred to as the C4 pathway.  Nectar which is collected by bees comes from plants that use a different process of photosynthesis, referred to as the C3 pathway.  There is a measurable difference in the ratio of the naturally occurring carbon-12 and carbon-13 isotopes in sugars arising from the C3 and C4 pathways, and this test uses this difference to identify whether C4 sugar appears to have been added to the honey.

nmrBut what to do when the cheaters even cheat the test? Well, there is a method called “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance” (NMR for short). The nuclei in atoms have electrical charges, and many also have a physical property known as spin. This means they are sensitive to magnetic fields in NMR machines with the nuclei of each type of atom reacting differently. By measuring how the nuclei in the sample respond to different magnetic fields a fingerprint of what is in the sample is created.

NMR is a very sensitive technique already used in other parts of the food industry, such as testing fruit juices and wines. In honey, it can distinguish between the different types of sugars and detect other components that give honey its unique flavours. It is a relatively new method that may be adopted by official bodies in the future.

A brighter future

There is hope that honey adulteration might become a cheat of the past with the new analytical methods. This will allow honey consumers to enjoy their passion and beekeepers to secure their future.

And bees will be allowed to perform their work benefiting the worlds food crops.

Pill popping danger

Dangers lurking in dietary supplements (photo: Steven Depolo)

Dangers lurking in dietary supplements (Photo: Steven Depolo)

We have previously warned about the lurking dangers of herbal supplements. International trade in herbal supplements is a profitable market with increasing demand in both developing and developed nations. There are currently more than 1,000 companies producing a bewildering 29,000 different medicinal plant products with annual revenues in excess of US$60 billion.

We have reported about Canadian results of testing 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They showed that pills labelled as popular herbs were often diluted by cheap fillers or included herbs other than what was claimed on the label. Some herbal supplements were adulterated with potentially toxic ingredients that could pose serious health risks to consumers. Product substitution occurred in 30 of the 44 products tested and only 2 of the 12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers. Quite a bad situation.

Now similar alarming findings have been reported in an American study. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for looking after the dietary supplement legislation. Between January 2009 and December 2012 the FDA recalled 274 dietary supplements under the class 1 recall legislation for adulteration with pharmaceutical ingredients. Earlier research had found that even after an FDA recall, the dietary supplement remained available on store shelves. However, it was not known if the supplements on sale after FDA recalls were free of the adulterants.

In the new survey, 27 of the 274 recalled supplements met inclusion criteria for the study and were analysed using the same methods at the FDA’s laboratories. Of the 27 products, 20 were produced by U.S. manufacturers and the rest fully imported. About two-thirds of the recalled dietary supplements analysed still contained banned drugs at least 6 months after being recalled, according to the survey, irrespective of their origin. Most still contained the same adulterant identified by the FDA. Six supplements contained one or more additional banned ingredients not previously identified by the FDA. Some supplements contained both the previously identified adulterant as well as additional pharmaceutical ingredients.

Promises of herbal supplements might be more than you asked for

Herbal supplement effects might be more than you asked for

Illegal substances identified in recalled supplements included:

  • sibutramine and sibutramine analogs (oral anorexiants prescribed as an adjunct in the treatment of obesity but have been associated with increased cardiovascular events and strokes and have been withdrawn from the market in many countries),
  • sildenafil (trade name Viagra, is a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction and pulmonary arterial hypertension),
  • fluoxetine (trade name Prozac, is an antidepressant),
  • phenolphthalein (has been used for over a century as a laxative, but is now being removed from over-the-counter laxatives because of concerns over carcinogenicity),
  • aromatase inhibitor (a class of drugs used in the treatment of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women), and
  • various anabolic steroids (increase protein in skeletal muscles with androgenic and virilizing properties, including growth of the vocal cords, testicles and body hair).

A revered previous Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, passed away on 21 October 2014. His slogan in winning the election was “It’s time”. I think it is high time that someone takes some serious action in preventing the sale of potentially harmful herbal supplements worldwide.

Do you trust herbal supplements?

Cart in Mexico selling herbal remedies (Photo: Wikimedia)

Cart in Mexico selling herbal remedies (Photo: Wikimedia)

Herbal supplements, sometimes called botanicals, aren’t new. As a matter of fact, the use of medicinal plants is the most common form of traditional medication worldwide. They have been used by human medicine for thousands of years. A considerable part of commercial pharmaceuticals currently on the market are derived from botanical sources. Examples include aspirin (from willow bark), quinine (from the quinine tree) and digoxin (from the foxglove plant). But pharmaceuticals have gone through extensive testing, herbal supplements have not.

The international trade in herbal supplements is a considerable part of the global economy and the demand is increasing in both developing and developed nations. There are currently more than 1,000 companies producing medicinal plant products with annual revenues in excess of US$60 billion. Echinacea to prevent colds. Ginkgo to improve memory. St. John’s wort to treat mild depression. Flaxseed to lower cholesterol. The list of herbal remedies goes on and on. There are now a bewildering 29,000 different products available on the market.

New research uncovered fraud

There is nothing inherently wrong in trusting herbal remedies, as long as you know what you’re getting. And do you? Maybe not according to new research.

Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labelling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that pills labelled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and weeds. A bottle labelled as St. John’s wort was made of nothing but rice. They also found that many supplements were not what they claimed to be. For instance, the study found that one product advertised as the North American black cohosh, a popular remedy for hot flashes and other menopause symptoms, actually contained the related Asian baneberry plant that can be toxic to humans.

Some herbal supplements were discovered to be adulterated with ingredients not listed on the label. Such contamination could pose serious health risks to consumers. For example, they identified black walnut contamination in a gingko product and contamination of many products with Santa Maria feverfew. This latter plant can trigger respiratory and skin reactions in people. One of the bottles tested even contained Alexandrian senna, a powerful laxative made from an Egyptian yellow shrub.

Product substitution occurred in 30 of 44 of the products tested and only two of the 12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers. Many people assume that if their local pharmacy or health food store carries a particular herbal supplement, it can’t be harmful. But it certainly can since many contaminants will have significant medical effects.

How serious is it?

Not necessarily safe because it is sold in a pharmacy (Photo: Chris de Rham)

Not necessarily safe because it is sold in a pharmacy (Photo: Chris de Rham)

Some of the adulteration problems may be inadvertent. Cross-contamination can occur in fields where different plants are grown side by side and picked at the same time, or in factories where the herbs are packaged. Rice, starch and other compounds are sometimes added during processing to keep powdered herbs from clumping, just as kernels of rice are added to salt shakers.

But it is clear from the results that product adulteration and deliberate ingredient substitution is not uncommon as species of a lower market value are substituted for those of a higher value. This practice constitutes not only product fraud, but according to the World Health Organization, the adulteration of herbal products can be a threat to consumer safety. And as if this is not enough, pesticides and heavy metals are often found at high levels in herbal supplements, but that will be a topic of a further blog.

Consumer advocates and scientists say the research provides more evidence that the herbal supplement industry is riddled with questionable practices. But of course industry representatives argue that the problems are not widespread.

You make up your own mind.

Related articles