You Might Be Wasting Your Money on These 'Fake' Foods at the Grocery Store

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Food Fraud

Ever wonder why some olive oil is so cheap? Curious about why certain brands of maple syrup are so much more expensive than others? Chances are high that you’re not getting what you think you’re paying for.

There are all kinds of “fake” foods out there in grocery stores today, and unless you know what to look for, you might fall for it. Here are 10 foods that might not be what they say they are, plus how to spot them.

Spices on kitchen counter.

1. Spices

With black pepper occasionally made of twigs, saffron sold at cheap prices despite being one of the most labor-intensive foods you can harvest, and vanilla extract full of mystery ingredients, spices are a battlefield. Especially when it comes to seasoning mixes, it’s always important to read the ingredients.

How to spot the fake: If you can grab whole spices in grinders, that’s a major help. And when it comes to saffron — well, you get what you pay for. Don’t skimp.

Raw Honey

2. Honey

Pure honey is hard to find. One 2018 study showed that “27% of commercial honey samples tested were of questionable authenticity,” and were thinned out with corn syrup or cane sugar. 

How to spot the fake: A lot of this is straight-up fraud, so your best bet is to buy local honey rather than one that might come in a plastic bear. You can also look for a "True Source Certified" label, which verifies where the honey came from.

Olive oil

3. Olive Oil

Olive oil has seen a fair amount of fraud, particularly in the European Union. According to ScienceDirect, other oils — think corn, sunflower, and palm oil — have been found in European olive oils that claim to be the real thing. However, according to a North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) representative, there have been no recent studies indicating adulteration in olive oil sold at U.S. supermarkets.

How to spot the fake: Though they're not aways the cheapest, look for olive oil labeled with PGI (protected geographical indication) or PDO (protected designation of origin) as an indication of quality. Shoppers also swear by Costco's affordable Kirkland Organic EVOO.

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parmesan cheese
parmesan cheese by Emily (CC BY-NC)

4. Parmesan Cheese

You know when an annoying person comes up to you and says that real Champagne can only come from Champagne, France? This is kind of like that. “Real” Parmesan cheese can only come from certain locations in Italy and is made through a rigorously specific process.

How to spot the fake: Look for Parm that’s labeled “Parmigiano Reggiano” and has the DOP stamp. If it's legit, the rind should also be imprinted with the name of the cheese.

Related: 15 Meaningless Nutritional Claims by Some of Your Favorite Foods

Best Sushi Restaurant in Each State

5. Certain Types of Fish

There are all kinds of deceptive things happening in the world of fish. Ever heard of white tuna? Not a thing. You're probably being served escolar, which is perfectly safe to eat, though many people claim it can cause an upset stomach. 

Red snapper is often known to be swapped with rockfish or tilefish when it’s out of season, and lobster sold at suspiciously cheap prices is often actually langostino, which is a crustacean that falls somewhere between a shrimp and a crab.

How to spot the fake: Ask the right questions to make sure you know exactly what type of fish you’re eating when you’re eating it.

Related: Would You Eat Fake Salmon Even if It’s Cheaper?

homemade maple syrup
homemade maple syrup by Chiot's Run (CC BY-NC)

6. Maple Syrup

The maple syrup you find in grocery stores isn’t always the real deal, and unfortunately, it’s sort of up to us to figure out what’s legit and what’s not. There are color and consistency differences, but as always, it’s best to shop local and small-batch to avoid fakes from big companies. This means you'll probably be spending a lot more than you would on a bottle of Log Cabin syrup.

How to spot the fake: This is another tough one, but experts say that pure maple syrup should be thinner and easier to pour than pancake syrup, its thicker, faker counterpart. And you can always look at the ingredient list — if it's pancake syrup, the ingredients will include things like high-fructose corn syrup and cellulose gum.

Oregon Truffle Festival, Willamette Valley, Oregon

7. Truffle Oil

Did you know that all you had to do was mix olive oil with a compound called 2,4-dithiapentane to create truffle oil-flavored oil? The compound is a dead ringer for the taste and smell of truffles, but it’s hardly the same experience; certainly not if you’re paying a hefty price for it.

How to spot the fake: Read the ingredients. Don’t see the word truffle? There’s your first hint.

Elena Pavlova /istockphoto

8. Wasabi

You may have eaten real wasabi at a nice Japanese restaurant, but if you’re buying it off the shelves of the Asian aisle at your local mega-chain grocery store, it’s probably not quite the real thing. The real plant is a lot harder to come by. Usually in the U.S. (especially from the sushi counter at a grocery store), the wasabi we eat is a mix of horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and green food coloring.

How to spot the fake: True wasabi is less spicy and doesn’t taste so much like American horseradish. If you’re at a fancy-pants sushi bar where they grind the stuff and make the paste right in front of you, that's when you know they've got the real deal.

Wagyu Beef
Wagyu Beef by Shoko Muraguchi (CC BY-NC-SA)

9. Wagyu Beef

Actual Wagyu beef is a specific breed of Japanese cow. Japan has a ton of food transparency laws that we don’t seem to have caught up with, so we're allowed to call something “Wagyu” if only one parent of the cow is Wagyu. As a result, there's been a lot of interbreeding.

Remember Arby's "Wagyu" beef burger? That patty was actually 51% American Wagyu and 49% ground beef. If the cow was only half-Wagyu to begin with, that alleged Wagyu burger was only about 25% of the real thing.

How to spot the fake: Ask where the meat came from, and look for the signature marbling and bright pink color.

Spicy Mango Juice
pada smith/istockphoto

10. Juice

You might already know that if you see the word “cocktail” on your cranberry juice, you’re in for a mixture of some sort. But did you know that “pure” apple juice sometimes has stuff like high fructose corn syrup and even raisin sweetener?

How to spot the fake: Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. Read ‘em.