How Do Scientists Determine If the Food You Eat Is Real?

Photo credit: The American Chemical Society
Photo credit: The American Chemical Society

The amount of “fake food” you eat annually is probably higher than you would like. And no, we’re not talking about food made from plastic.


This is especially true if you eat foods such as cheese or olive oil, as suggested in a new video released by the American Chemical Society, which documents the ways fake food gets past the experts whose job it is to make sure your food is safe to eat.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently found that several US sellers of parmesan cheese weren’t being entirely truthful in advertising products. Castle Cheese Inc., for instance, was found to not be selling 100 percent parmesan cheese, as it stated, but rather mixing it in with substitutes such as lower cost cheeses and, more alarmingly, cellulose, an anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp.

Olive oil can also fall victim to food fraud because it’s more valuable than other vegetable oils, and because it’s easy to fake if you just supplement the mixture with cheaper products.

So how can you tell if the food you’re eating is real (as horrible as that is to say)? Unfortunately, without access to a laboratory, you’ll most likely be at the mercy of organizations like the FDA to supervise food sellers. However, if you do have a lab at your disposal there are a myriad of ways to save somebody’s plate of spaghetti. There isn’t a uniform test across all foods, but mass spectrometry has been helpful in identifying certain chemicals.

In the case of parmesan cheese, the European Union only labels it as such when it’s made from unpasteurized milk from cows in certain Italian regions (like, you know, Parma) that haven’t been fed certain types of fermented grass. Mass spectrometry can be used to identify a type of fatty acid that appears in the milk of cows that are fed the wrong kind of grass.

[Chemical & Engineering News]


Weekend editor and night person at Gizmodo. More space core than human.


I want to be able to nanoassemble food on demand. I don’t care if its labeled “fake” so long as it does the same job and tastes just as good. I’d like to feed it a pile of perfectly cooked hot wings and get that same plate of goodness out every single time. Minus anything that can cause cancer of course...Which would be the whole point of having nanoassembly. It might not be star-trek replicator fast, but if it could be a minute or two for a pound of wings (plus plate and wet-wipes) from base materials... :)