Insider Business Documentary
“11 Of The Most Faked Foods In The World” is a documentary that explores the fraudulent food industry, which is estimated to be worth $40 billion per year. The film highlights how some producers get away with food deception and how we can spot the real stuff.
The documentary features 11 of the most commonly counterfeited foods, including Truffles, Maple Syrup, Wasabi, Parmesan Cheese, Vanilla, Caviar, Honey, Olive Oil, Wagyu Beef, Coffee, and Saffron. It discusses how these fraudulent foods cost legitimate producers and pose a risk to consumers. Some highly prized products, like honey or caviar, are too rare or expensive to meet global demand. Here’s how criminals and legitimate companies alike make big bucks selling less expensive substitutes.
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Narrator: It takes over 40 gallons of sap to make just one jug of real maple syrup.
That’s why one of these bottles can cost $10.
And grocery stores are flooded with imitation syrups that don’t have any maple sap at all.
In fact, tons of expensive foods we love eating might not be the real thing, including wasabi, vanilla, and truffle oil.
The main reason why this happens, it’s all about money.
Narrator: Some of this is legal, as long as products that aren’t the real deal disclose it on the packaging, even if it’s a bit sneaky.
But often, it’s illegal, with entire criminal rings behind these counterfeit foods.
Globally, the fraudulent food industry could be worth $40 billion.
The sort of least end of it, you’re getting ripped off.
At the worst end, you’re literally getting poisoned.
Narrator: So how did fake food take over our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchens?
And how do counterfeiters get away with it?
We travel around the world to learn how to spot the real stuff.
First up, truffles.
Hate to break it to you, but your $15 truffle fries don’t have any truffle on them.
Larry: What is called truffle oil is entirely made in a laboratory. It has nothing to do with mushrooms.
Narrator: Real truffles are pricey and rare.
And they need specific conditions to grow, usually in places like Italy and France, or here in the UK.
James: Truffles are always found with trees, and they have to be the right type of trees.
Under the ground, the truffle is just the fruiting body, so an equivalent of an apple.
Narrator: We used to train pigs to find the fungi, but now, mostly dogs do the sniffing.
James: Good boy. Thank you. Good boy. Come.
So he’s told us that they are still in the ground, so, do I want to take it out of the ground or not?
It all depends on if it’s ripe.
If it’s unripe, there’s no point in having it.
So the nose comes into play.
We actually sniff the ground for it.
Yeah, that’s a nice one.
Yeah, that’s probably about 70, 80 grams.
Once the truffle is out of the ground, the clock is ticking.
It’s slowly going to degrade over time.
Narrator: People have learned how to farm truffles successfully.
About 80% of the black truffles we consume are now cultivated, but it can still take as long as six years to grow them.
And most attempts to farm the most expensive white truffles have failed, which is why they’re so pricey and often counterfeited.
Since truffles are hunted in the wild and delivered in label-less bags, it’s easier for fraudsters to swap them out for cheaper ones without getting caught.
But truffle oil might be the trickiest.
It’s usually just olive or sunflower oil with a touch of a synthetic compound derived from petroleum called 2,4-Dithiapentane.
It contains the same aromatic component of foot odor.
That’s why you get that earthy taste and can sometimes smell gas.
Larry: Anything with a truffle flavor added to it is really problematic.
Truffle is not a product that lends itself to being either made in oil or steeped in oil.
Narrator: You can tell it’s artificial when you see words like “truffle flavoring” or “aroma” on a package.
The most foolproof, though?
See it shaved right in front of you.
Larry: It should look like a truffle, look like a mushroom product.
Narrator: Maple syrup is another tricky case.
One food-fraud lawyer we spoke to estimated as much as half of what’s labeled 100% maple syrup might be fake.
Real maple syrup is tapped from trees.
Canada produces 85% of the world’s real supply.
But the US set production records in 2022, thanks to brands like Sapjack out of Vermont.
The company steam-heats its sap.
Then machines filter and bottle the syrup, usually within six hours.
It takes about 44 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of real maple syrup, which is why real maple syrup can cost about six times more than pancake syrup.
The imitation kind is often a mix of corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, caramel color, and added flavorings.
This kind of syrup isn’t illegal.
And you can tell it’s not real maple when you see words like “pancake syrup” or “table syrup” on the label, while the authentic kind will say “100%” or “pure” and have just maple syrup on the ingredients list.
But there’s a more nefarious kind of syrup fraud.
The FDA says companies have previously bottled up fake syrup, labeled it 100% real maple syrup, and pocketed the profits.
And that’s illegal.
In that case, it might be best to look at the consistency.
Real syrup is often thinner than fake, corn-based syrups.
Wasabi is probably the most widely faked food on our list.
It’s estimated only 1% of American wasabi and 5% of Japanese wasabi is real.
Most of it is actually a mixture of horseradish, a sweetener, and a food starch.
It’s just funny to me when people say, “Oh, I love wasabi, I love sushi here.”
And I’m thinking, like, “Well, you’ve never had good sushi, and you’ve never had any wasabi,” but, you know.
Narrator: The FDA doesn’t have specific guidelines for the term wasabi, so only its rules on labeling would apply.
As long as the ingredients list is accurate, it’s legal to label something “prepared wasabi,” even if it’s just horseradish.
Larry: Not going to make you sick to eat it.
It just doesn’t taste as good.
Narrator: Real wasabi is related to cheap veggies like horseradish, cabbage, or broccoli, but it can cost nearly 30 times more.
For one, there’s way more demand than supply.
Wasabi is surprisingly rare.
It’s considered the hardest plant to farm commercially in the world.
It grows naturally along Japanese mountain springs, where the temperatures are mild and there’s enough shade and gravel soil.
The Wasabi Company, based in the UK, is the first commercial grower in Europe.
The company has recreated the conditions of Japan.
But it still takes 18 months before the plant is ready for harvesting.
The harvesting will be done by hand, and then it’s a laborious process to break it apart, the whole plant, and then clean up the rhizomes.
There’s no machine that’s going to help you pull this out of the ground and trim it up fit for the sushi counter.
This is a stem.
We get our special grater, which has very, very fine teeth, and you can see that it doesn’t have any holes on the back.
We’re not after really grating the wasabi.
We’re after pasting.
Narrator: This can cost $319 per kilo.
Jon: If you’re not seeing it grated fresh in front of you, then it’s very unlikely it’s fresh wasabi.
Narrator: So what does real wasabi look and taste like?
It should be chunkier and have a gritty texture, whereas horseradish-based wasabi will be smooth.
And the real stuff actually doesn’t have as spicy of a kick. It’s more subtle.
Another victim to confusing labeling?
There are only about 300 dairies in the entire world that are certified to produce authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, and they’re under strict regulations.
It can only be made in one region of Italy, called Emilia-Romagna.
This is the sole place in the world that has all three bacteria needed to give parm its distinct taste.
Cheese masters combine day-old skim and fresh milk.
They add whey and rennet.
Then, they split the milk into curds.
The mixture cooks for five minutes to kill off bacteria and to settle the curds at the bottom of the vat.
What’s left is a massive, 220-pound curd.
Cheese makers dump it into molds and add stencils to identify the cheese as authentic.
The wheel heads to brining to form a rind and then a huge aging room.
Narrator: It takes at least one year of aging for it to develop these crunchy crystals.
They’re buildups of amino acids, and they hold the cheese’s umami taste.
But some will stay here for up to a decade.
The longer they mature, the more crystals form, and the more valuable they become.
One wheel can cost well over $1,000.
But other countries have different laws.
In the US, you can legally call something Parmesan without following the strict Italian rules for Parmigiano-Reggiano.
For example, American parm can be aged for only 10 months, whereas in Italy, at least a year is required.
But grated cheese is even further from the real thing.
In the US, producers are allowed to mix in fillers like rice flour or cellulose, commonly obtained from wood pulp.
They’re used to keep the grains from sticking together.
The Center for Dairy Research suggests keeping cellulose levels between 2% and 4%.
But the problem is companies aren’t required to list the percentages of these fillers, and often, no one’s checking.
In 2016, Bloomberg reported Walmart’s Great Value 100% Parmesan had 7.8% cellulose, nearly double the suggested limit.
Some 50 lawsuits were filed alleging the labeling was misleading, but a judge dismissed them all.
But there’s a more nefarious kind of parm fraud, where criminals label counterfeit cheese as real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Estimates put these illegal sales at $2 billion each year.
Phony cheeses are hurting the real Parmigiano industry in Italy.
Larry: They lose market share and value.
Half of the people in Parma’s life depends upon the Parma ham or Parmesan cheese industry, and so there’s a big impetus to protect that.
Narrator: So when you’re standing in the cheese aisle, how do you make sure you’re grabbing the authentic parm?
Well, first, maybe don’t buy those shakers.
Each chunk of the wheel will have a part of the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” spelled out in dots.
It’ll also have a protected designation of origin, or DOP label.
Larry: Real Parmesan cheese from Italy is readily available. Almost any supermarket, certainly any cheese shop. Sometimes it’s cheaper than some of the fake versions.
Narrator: The other tell is taste.
Parmigiano-Reggiano, depending on the age, will have those crystals that pack a fruity and nutty flavor.
Just like Parmesan, vanilla can have some confusing labeling.
It’s estimated just 1% of all vanilla products in the world are real.
Most of the legit stuff comes from Madagascar, where farmers pollinate orchids by hand.
The beans are boiled and sun-dried at a processing facility.
Workers hand-massage each pod to release the chemical vanillin.
The beans then soak in a mixture of alcohol and water to make the extract.
The whole thing is laborious and expensive.
So in the US, many brands sell imitation versions using lab-made vanillin.
It’s either derived from petroleum or from compounds found in clove oil, wood, and bark.
And that’s legal, as long as “artificial flavoring” is listed on the package.
But it could be more dangerous in other countries.
In 2008 in Mexico, some products labeled as vanilla were found to be made from the beans of a tonka tree, a completely different plant.
They contained a toxic substance called coumarin that’s banned in the US and is dangerous for people on blood thinners.
These illegal products were sold all over the Americas.
So how can you tell what’s real?
Many vanilla products, like ice cream and cookies, get away with using the imitation stuff by just saying “natural flavoring” on the ingredients list.
The real stuff will list “vanilla bean extractives.”
Also take a look and a whiff.
In this test we did, the authentic vanilla smelled much stronger of alcohol, and it was much cloudier than the fake stuff.
Caviar, the most expensive fish eggs out there, can also mean big payouts for fraudsters.
In the US, federal agents have busted multiple criminal operations for fraudulent caviar.
It’s often counterfeited because it’s so difficult to harvest.
One of America’s only caviar farms is raising beluga, which has some of the priciest eggs on the market.
A single kilogram can sell for a whopping $24,000.
Caviar is made from the roe, or the eggs, of sturgeons, which are critically endangered.
It takes 10 years before a sturgeon is ready to have its roe harvested.
Producers remove the egg sac from the dead fish and rub it over a metal grate.
Salting the eggs is especially difficult because workers don’t want to pop any of them.
A 2-ounce jar goes for $175 at a shop in New York City.
Those high prices tempt criminal counterfeiters, who often come from China or Vietnam.
They make fake caviar from the eggs of cheaper fish.
Or they’ll label low-grade caviar as a fancier, imported kind so they can charge more, which is hard to catch.
I certainly cannot look at a bunch of fish eggs and tell whether they’re expensive fish eggs or not-expensive fish eggs.
Narrator: So if you’re going to spend hundreds on a tiny jar, you want to make sure it’s the real deal, right?
Well, you can use the hot water test.
Real caviar will harden in hot water as the proteins cook, but fake caviar will dissolve.
Knockoff roe might look dull and take irregular shapes, while authentic caviar will be uniformly sized and have a glossy shine to it.
Fake honey is even more widespread.
A third of what’s traded internationally is adulterated or completely fake.
I feel it’s the biggest secret food fraud that has ever been perpetrated globally. I really do.
Narrator: Real honey needs a perfect combination of nature and patience.
Bees do most of the work.
Beekeepers have to be careful not to disturb the natural process.
They suit up with a face mask and full body coverings to protect from stings.
This smoker calms the bees so they can easily remove honeycomb frames.
Beekeepers scrape the wax that keeps the honey in each cell.
Finally, a centrifuge spins the frames, pushing the honey out of the combs.
But globally, there is more honey being sold than the world’s bees are capable of making.
Only counterfeits containing little to no real honey can explain that difference.
Dupes are made up of high-fructose corn syrup and other cheap syrups like glucose, rice, cane, or beet.
So you don’t have to go to all the hard work of the beekeeping and all of that lengthy process.
You just get maybe some honey and some other honey from somewhere else, you blend it together, you add some sugars.
Narrator: Many experts say the fake honey often comes from China, the biggest honey exporter on the planet.
Fraudsters in China market sugar syrups that will outsmart lab tests if added to honey, or they’ll filter out all the pollen, making it impossible to trace.
Sarah: This stuff that’s being shipped out of China technically isn’t even honey.
You are looking at that honey going through so many pairs of hands.
So there are many, many opportunities for it to be bulked out with cheaper sugars.
Narrator: In 2013, the US Justice Department busted two American honey importers in one of the biggest food fraud cases in US history.
In what’s now called “Honeygate,” they routed sham Chinese honey laced with antibiotics through other countries to avoid import fees.
Both had to pay millions in fines.
But Sarah does have a few tips.
First, avoid any label with the word “blend.”
Sarah: The very act of processing honey, that damages honey irreparably.
Even if they’re not adding anything, they’re corrupting that honey, and they’re making it worthless, just a worthless jar of sugars.
Narrator: She says your best bet is to buy raw honey from a local producer at a nearby farmers market and be willing to pay a bit more.
Sarah: If you’re going for the cheap end of the market, you are going to get an awful lot of fraudulently produced honey.
Narrator: Olive oil also tops our list of frequently faked foods.
Authentic extra-virgin olive oil has to be freshly squeezed from ripe olives.
Most come from farms in Spain, Italy, or Greece, like this cooperative farm in Antequera, Spain, the largest olive oil producer in the world.
Workers harvest olives from November to January using these vibrating machines that shake the fruit loose.
They dump the olives into big trailers waiting to head to factories.
This one can process thousands of olives an hour, first washing off any dirt.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the least processed kind out there, using no heat or chemicals.
The machines grind the olives into a thick paste and then spin it.
Massive decanters press it out of the mush.
The factory pumps the oil into storage and finally into bottles.
This is one of the most expensive cooking oils in the world, selling for over $10 a 17-ounce bottle.
And it’s easy to imitate, so criminal rings making fake oil have thrived since ancient Rome.
Some fill up their bottles with cheap soybean or vegetable oil. Others mix in lower-grade olive oil but still label it as extra-virgin.
Larry: If you hold a bottle of olive oil up to the light in the supermarket, you can’t tell if it has corn oil in it or not.
Narrator: Some are so organized, they even have their own supply chains, from farms to bottling facilities.
Like this one in Italy that Europol busted.
So how do you know what you’re buying is real extra-virgin?
Larry: If it just says virgin, if it just says olive oil, if it says “olive oil blend,” if it says, “light olive oil,” it is not an olive oil that I would buy.
You don’t want to buy anything that’s not extra-virgin.
They don’t leave those words off on purpose, right?
Narrator: Plus, if it’s $3 a bottle, Larry says it’s too good to be true.
The pressed-on date is also important.
European oils are harvested in the fall and winter.
So if you’re buying a Spanish olive oil in August, it’s nearly a year old.
Larry says it starts losing flavor after a year or two.
So you never want a pressed-on date that is more than two years old.
You could also smell it.
Real olive oil has a fruity and grassy smell.
If it smells like nothing, or it’s rancid, there’s a chance it’s not real.
This is real wagyu beef.
But what’s been popping up on menus across the US probably isn’t.
Wagyu literally means “Japanese cow,” and it refers to four main breeds.
The Japanese government tightly regulates how these cows are raised to control the quality of their meat.
A popular type of wagyu is Kobe beef, which comes from the area around Kobe, Japan.
The steers, or castrated bulls, are fed a strict diet of rice and corn.
Foodies love their meat for its tenderness, sweetness, and distinct marbling.
As of 2019, a pound of wagyu could cost up to $200.
The cows themselves could sell for as much as $30,000.
That can be more than 10 times the price of black Angus cattle.
And Japan only exports a few thousand tons a year.
So wagyu in American restaurants isn’t always up to Japanese standards.
Most of the wagyu cattle in the US have also been bred with other, hardier breeds that can handle environments like the dry heat of Texas.
So their meat isn’t 100% wagyu.
According to USDA rules, wagyu cows only need to have one parent with at least 93.7% wagyu genetics.
So they could have as little as 46.9% themselves, and still be called wagyu.
The USDA isn’t responsible for what goes on at restaurants, so they can more easily get away with listing something as wagyu on a menu when it might not be up to snuff.
Commercial: Arby’s made a new burger.
Upgraded it with rich, juicy wagyu beef.
Narrator: Take this commercial for Arby’s wagyu burger.
In the fine print, you’ll see it contains only 51% American wagyu.
So how can you make sure your $300 is getting you an actual wagyu steak?
Well, first, you can look at it.
The fat in real wagyu is evenly distributed.
The marbling is distinctive, with thin, intricate white veins.
Also, Larry says Kobe would rarely, if ever, be served on the bone.
And it doesn’t make the best burger, because it’s too tender to be formed into patties.
If you’re still not convinced, you can ask to see the wagyu’s certificate of authenticity or look for this bronze statue in restaurants authorized to sell Kobe.
You might be surprised to learn even your coffee could be phony.
You could just be brewing up a bag of inferior beans marketed as some more expensive ones.
Or it could be something completely different: ground acorns, barley, or wheat.
Larry: Coffee is big, big, big business, and historically, it has been cut with anything that’s brown.
Burnt paper. Burnt corn. Sawdust.
Narrator: That’s because growing coffee is expensive and labor-intensive.
Farmers need to harvest more than 1,500 of these cherries to make just 1 pound of coffee beans, and they have to do it fast.
We have to do something with it immediately.
It only lasts 24 hours.
Narrator: Workers have to handpick the berries, avoiding unripe ones.
Then they load only the ripe ones into 100-pound bags.
The skin is removed, and the two seeds inside are dried out and roasted.
Large-scale farms can produce cheaper coffee, picking the whole tree and processing ripe and unripe berries together.
It’s not illegal, but it hurts quality.
What is illegal?
When counterfeiters bag up cheaper beans, slap on a fake label, and fool customers into paying more.
Or when they fill a portion of a bag with cheaper coffee.
And they get away with it because coffee’s origin is so hard to track.
Larry: You have thousands and thousands of really small producers around the world who pick their beans, and then they’re put into trucks, and then they’re put into containers, and then they’re put on boats.
There’s so many points along those supply chains that somebody has the opportunity to tamper with products.
Narrator: But you can do your due diligence.
Buy from reputable sources.
Verify the origin of your coffee.
Look for certifications like from the Specialty Coffee Association on the packaging.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, but the market for “red gold” is widely tainted with cheaper products.
Real saffron comes from the three tiny strands, or stigmas, of the Crocus sativus flower.
Here in Kashmir, the delicate flowers need about two years to grow before farmers like Ashiq Rashid can harvest them, just like his family has done for nearly a century.
The stigmas are so fragile, farmers must remove them by hand.
The less valuable yellow tips are cut off and sifted out.
Ashiq and his dad spend two and a half hours plucking enough saffron just to fill this tiny container.
All in all, it takes over 150,000 flowers to make just 1 kilo of saffron, which can cost $3,000.
With those prices, counterfeiters can earn big bucks if they dupe buyers.
It’s even been reported criminals earn millions passing off hay, horsehair, coconut filaments, or roots as saffron.
To stop the influx of imitation saffron, the local government launched this trading center.
Farmers can authenticate their crop and get a GI tag.
But the center has barely scratched the surface.
So how can consumers make sure they’re purchasing real saffron?
You can do a water test.
Types of saffron are put into water or milk.
It should very slowly release a yellow color and not an instant coloring of red or orange color.
That is a purity test for saffron.
Narrator: The threads of fake saffron will also easily disintegrate, while real ones will hold their form.
And then there’s the price.
Larry: Paying more for products does not assure their validity.
But paying less kind of assures their invalidity.
You’re not going to get cheap saffron.
Narrator: So why is all this counterfeit stuff really that awful?
Larry: One is just pure economic fraud.
If you buy what you think is Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee for $30 a pound, then it’s cheaper coffee, you’ve been ripped off.
Narrator: But then there’s our health.
If your extra-virgin olive oil is secretly cut with peanut oil, and you’re allergic to peanuts, well, that could be deadly.
Larry: Especially products out of China. Honey has been found to contain drugs that are banned in this country because they’re known carcinogens.
Narrator: Authentic brands can’t compete with the cheap prices of fakes.
Sarah: Cheap honey imports really do hamper us from selling our honey at a fair price.
It’s meeting implausible, low price points.
Narrator: Beekeepers warn the fraudulent stuff could put them, and millions of hives, out of business.
But why is this problem so widespread?
And why is it hard to catch the criminals?
Some criminal groups are so well structured, they operate like companies with multiple departments.
They even have teams researching consumer trends to decide what to counterfeit next.
In one Italian olive oil ring the culprits hired food scientists to create recipes.
The counterfeiters will then secure suppliers and set up sophisticated factories in abandoned warehouses.
They operate in areas where real products are made so their movements don’t arouse suspicion.
Criminals will bottle up the fraudulent product to look like real ones, down to a fake batch number.
To sell their counterfeits, they often knock on restaurant doors or set up fake websites or postings.
Operating virtually and shipping products through multiple countries makes it much harder to trace.
Europol helped break up 40 organized crime rings committing food fraud in 2022, including an Italian gang exporting fake olive oil, a network passing off gardenia as saffron in Spain, and a fake spice operation in South Africa.
But with massive, international supply chains, it’s really hard to catch all the counterfeits.
While the USDA inspects imported meat and eggs, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the rest.
And it’s estimated the FDA inspects just 1% to 2% of imported foods.
Larry: And they have made very clear that they consider the drug side of their equation a higher priority.
And they’ve always had, and probably always will have, finite resources.
I disagree with that logic, because I look at the food we eat as the only drug that everybody takes every day.
Narrator: But even if they’re caught, the punishment isn’t usually as harsh as drug trafficking.
Sarah: This is big crime.
And why not? It’s huge money.
It’s better than dealing drugs for them, because no one’s going to break your door down at 4 in the morning and arrest you for selling rubbish honey.
Narrator: Larry says two things could deter counterfeiting before it starts: tougher sentencing and the use of blockchain to track the supply chain through labels.
Larry: So I think the situation is improving, just not enough.
I think we need clearer laws, real penalties, and real enforcement, not just a slap on the wrist.
You can’t legislate crime away, but you can certainly make it tougher.
Narrator: But some of it comes down to the consumer.
Sarah: Because I think if we stop buying the really cheap, horrible product, actually in the end, this fraud will become far less of an issue.
Larry: Buy things in their whole form.
You know what a lobster looks like, but you buy lobster ravioli, and sometimes there’s no lobster in it.
Narrator: And always look at the ingredient list.
Because if you know how to differentiate the real stuff from the fake stuff, the decision of what you put into your body becomes yours.
Sarah: The consumer does have power. Though we appear to be utterly disempowered in this debate, we’re not.
Larry: People should not live their lives in fear of going to the supermarket.
Make it your mission as a consumer to try to buy things that are better.
Sarah: If you, by mistake, buy some really rubbish honey, it is the best hair pack in the world, hair and face pack.
Just put it on your hair, slop it on your face, because it’s only about the sugars, and it’s just absolutely fantastic.
So it doesn’t have to go to waste.
You don’t have to eat the stuff, but you can just make it like the best beauty treatment there ever was.