Have you ever seen those videos online of a boot or a cactus and then someone comes along with a knife and cuts it and, holy smokes, it was a cake all along? We’re fascinated by that kind of tomfoolery because it’s done in a safe and enjoyable way. What we don’t like is when we see and eat food that turns out to be not what we thought it was at all, especially when it’s not even any kind of food. Unfortunately, this kind of food adulteration happens more than you’d think.
10. Embalming Fluid Milk
Americans have been told to drink three cups of milk per day. It does a body good, as they say. And even if the idea of drinking milk is becoming less popular these days thanks to all the almonds and soy beans we milk, it’s still a popular and mostly healthy beverage. But that wasn’t always the case.
At the end of the 1800s, the dairy industry had come under fire for basically being a modern horror movie distilled into liquid form. There were no discernible standards whatsoever in milk production. Milk was often subject to one of two major issues. Either it had so much bacteria in it that scientists literally couldn’t count it all, or it had an entire cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s worth of additives that didn’t belong.
Dairy makers would thin milk with water then add gelatin to thicken it. And that was the good stuff. It might have chalk, plaster or dye to fix the color. Cream would get its rich color from the addition of pureed calf brains. And if the milk was about to go bad, they’d add formaldehyde to it. This was in addition to the sticks, blood, hair and pus discovered in milk. The Indiana health department concluded that residents consumed about 2,000 pounds of cow manure via milk in a given year.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s, after the deaths of far too many children, that steps were taken to clean up the dairy industry.
9. Spain’s Fake Olive Oil
The olive oil you have at home is probably fake. That’s not a slight against you personally. It’s just a fact that up to 80% of the extra virgin olive oil in America is a fraud. And this is by no means a new trend. People have been faking olive oil for years because it’s relatively easy to do. It’s also highly dangerous.
Back in 1981, Spain endured one of the most devastating cases of food poisoning ever recorded. Over 20,000 people showed symptoms, 10,000 were hospitalized and 300 ended up dying. The cause was determined to be adulterated rapeseed oil sold as olive oil after being denatured with phenylamine.
The oil used was never intended for consumption; it was industrial. It caused lung failure, deformities and serious immune system damage. Survivors were left with chronic conditions that persist to this day.
8. Knock Off Honey
Like olive oil, there’s a good chance the honey in your house is fake as well. As much as one third of the honey in the world is counterfeit. Some estimates say, in America, it’s as much as 70%.
So if your honey isn’t honey, what is it? It may just be a watered down version of the real thing, cut with sugar syrup or corn syrup or something similar. In order to qualify as honey, according to the FDA, the end product has to have pollen in it. No pollen means no honey, legally speaking. But most store-bought honey has none. This doesn’t technically mean it’s not honey, but it does mean it’s been heavily filtered and often this is done to hide where it comes from. Pollen tells you what plants the bees that made the honey were feeding on. If those plants came from China, honey sellers don’t want you to know that.
Chinese honey is low cost and easy to get. It’s also not necessarily honey. It may just be corn syrup with a mix of other sweeteners of potentially deadly chemicals since there’s little regulation. If you want the real deal, the stuff sold at farmer’s markets and directly from apiaries is almost always legit.
7. Antifreeze Wine
Few adulterated food products are more well known than wine contaminated with antifreeze. It’s possible a lot of people are actually too young to have heard of it these days, but it actually featured in an episode of The Simpsons that aired all the way back in 1990.
In 1985, there was a worldwide scandal surrounding Austrian wine. Millions of gallons were pulled from shelves after antifreeze was found to have been added to the mix. As it happens, antifreeze, in addition to stopping your car from seizing up in winter, has an unusually sweet smell and taste. You’re advised to clean up any spills in your garage because cats are known to sneak in and drink it when they find it, which can kill them. It can kill humans too, leading to kidney and brain damage.
When added to wine, antifreeze makes it sweeter and full-bodied. Basically, it seems like higher quality wine. Except, you know, deadlier.
6. Melamine Baby Formula
The true horror of what can happen when food is adulterated hit home in 2008 with a Chinese milk scandal. As many as 300,000 babies in China got sick and six of them died as a result of milk that was tainted by melamine. In 2010, after the scandal had been revealed, there were still companies trying to sell the product with full knowledge of how dangerous it was.
Melamine is a white powder and is normally used to make plastics, insulation and cleaning products. When added to diluted milk, it increases nitrogen and can trick quality control tests into making it look like it’s higher protein than it really is. But the chemical itself causes serious health problems, including severe kidney damage.
When the scandal broke, 22 different dairy producers were found to be selling contaminated milk. Twenty people were convicted for their involvement and two were executed by the state.
5. Pork for Veal
On a lot of cooking competition shows like Top Chef, you’ll see professional chefs compete in a blind taste test of ingredients where they’re literally blindfolded and asked to identify ingredients by taste. It’s much harder than you’d imagine and many seemingly simple foods can be hard to identify even for people with immaculate palates. Which is part of the reason why it can be easier than you’d think to do something like swapping pork for veal in restaurants.
Veal is expensive meat. It has to follow some specific rules in its production to even count as veal. Pork, on the other hand, is fairly easy to come by and much cheaper to buy. In the right circumstances and with the right cuts and preparation, pork and veal are very similar. That said, one of the big differences any restaurateur should be aware of is that some people don’t eat pork for very specific reasons, including religious or health reasons. Generally, Jews or Muslims who eat pork by accident are not considered to have violated their faith in a technical sense, but it still feels like a betrayal, because it is.
In Florida, several restaurants were caught subbing pork for veal without informing diners. Four of 10 restaurants investigated by the local news were doing it, in fact. Most of the restaurants claimed that, if it happened, it was a mistake. Veal typically costs three times what pork does, so the restaurant can make a good profit with the scam.
4. 100% Horse Meat
Swapping pork for beef is one thing, but at least those are both animals you expect to be eating. In Europe, 2013 gave rise to a widespread horsemeat scandal where it was found that horse meat had been substituted for beef. And it was a lot of horsemeat.
The supermarket chain Aldi revealed that they were selling frozen meals from one supplier that weren’t just cut with horse, they were 100% horsemeat. When a number of beef products were analyzed to see what DNA they contained, several different brands came back as having not just horse but undeclared pork as well, meaning someone had just thrown the whole farm into a meat grinder.
Much of the horse meat originated in Romania, where it was sold as horsemeat and then re-labeled later in the supply chain as beef.
3. Counterfeit Eggs
Just under 77 million tons of eggs were produced in 2018. That works out to 161 eggs for every human on Earth per year. Keep in mind, eggs are barely eaten at all in many countries. Some people eat a lot of eggs, and China leads the pack. Their chickens cranked out 466 billion eggs in 2018, which was 34% of all the eggs in the world. But China is also where you’re most likely to find eggs that never even passed near a chicken, or any other animals.
In 2012, counterfeit Chinese eggs became news and they are weirder than you can imagine. How do you fake an egg, after all? The amount of effort that goes into it makes you wonder how it could have possibly been worth the money, but nevertheless, here’s how it works. First, you need to make the white. Resin, starch and a coagulant are used, along with some dyes. A fake yolk with resin and yellow pigments can then be added to the slimy white. Then a shell is made from paraffin wax, gypsum powder and calcium carbonate. So, at first glance, it looks and even feels like the real thing both inside and out.
A skilled egg maker could crank out 1,500 fakes in a day. The cost was apparently half of what a real egg might cost despite how in-depth it seems.
2. Chinese Fake Meat
As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, food standards in China have not always been up to snuff. Like the issues with veal being swapped out for pork and horses subbing in for beef, China had its own meat scandal, only this time it was a little more colorful.
In one case, meat sold as mutton in China turned out to be duck meat that was assembled using chemicals and adhesives, as well as imported mutton grease for authenticity. This was after a previous scam which involved dipping duck meat in lamb urine to give it a mutton flavor, which is apparently a thing that happens.
While duck coated in mutton grease doesn’t sound super appetizing, it’s at least vaguely accepted as being food people eat. Elsewhere, fox, mink and rat meat was being sold as mutton.
1. Gutter Oil
Cooking oil is pretty ubiquitous, and it comes from so many sources that you’d think in the modern world that producing it or acquiring it wouldn’t be so difficult. It comes from so many sources, after all. And yet, despite that, the scourge of gutter oil is all too real.
Gutter oil is oil that comes from every single place oil should never come from. Slaughterhouses, grease traps and, of course, sewers. You know how oil tends to float to the top of other liquids? The harvesters of gutter oil just skim it off and reprocess it. It’s not legal, but it happens.
Videos of the production made waves in 2013, with harvesters just opening manholes on streets in broad daylight and pulling up ladles full of slime to process and re-sell to small restaurants or street vendors. But the problem was so widespread it was estimated that 10% of all cooking oil was gutter oil.