Do You Know What’s In Your Food?

Paul Markoff
Mar 29, 2018 · 4 min read

While you may think that buying a jar labeled extra virgin olive oil means that you’re getting extra virgin olive oil, this may not actually be the case. Food mislabeling and food fraud are more common than most people think, and can lead not only to money wasted buying a product that’s not what you expected, but also to dangerous allergic reactions if allergens aren’t listed properly.

Food mislabeling can happen at the grocery store and at restaurants as well. Seafood restaurants are particularly prone to mislabeling, with restauranteurs often substituting cheaper fish for what’s listed on the menu. Beef is also susceptible to mislabeling, with many restaurants claiming to serve Wagyu or Kobe beef when in fact the beef is a lesser quality.

In addition to foods being fraudulently mislabeled, false advertising is rampant in the food world. False advertising happens when a company makes a false or misleading claim about its product, such as when Dannon made the claim that their Activia brand yogurt was “scientifically proven” to aid in digestion.

Foods That May Not Be What They Claim

You may be surprised at the number of common household staples that may not be what they say they are. Here are just a few foods that have been found to be mislabeled or adulterated on a widespread basis in recent years:

  • Olive Oil: Extra virgin olive oil rarely meets the standards to be classified as such. In many cases, the fresh olive oil is mixed with older batches, thus diluting the taste and health benefits. In worse cases, it’s mixed with entirely different oils, such as sunflower seed or soybean oil.
  • Honey: Most honey sold at big supermarkets and drugstores has had all of its pollen filtered out and may be diluted with sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. In addition, it may have been illegally imported by China and contain harmful antibiotics.
  • Coffee: Preground and instant coffee have been found to have had fillers such as soybeans, seeds, and twigs added. Demand for coffee means that when there is a shortage, big companies turn to these non-coffee fillers to make up the difference.
Fancy a nice cup of twigs and seeds?

Commonly Mislabeled Foods in Restaurants

A particularly egregious case of mislabeling in restaurants is white tuna, which was substituted with escolar in over 80% of Japanese restaurants in America. Escolar can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, which is why it’s banned in Japan and Italy, and other countries such as Canada and Sweden require warning labels on escolar sales.

Other types of fish that are often mislabeled are red snapper, grouper, halibut, and cod. Grouper in particular is often swapped with king mackerel, which is easier to source but can contain high levels of mercury. The FDA actually recommends avoiding king mackerel due to these high mercury levels.

Kobe beef is another widespread fraudulent claim. There are only 9 restaurants throughout the entire United States that serve actual Kobe beef, so the chances that your local hamburger joint is serving the real thing are quite small. Kobe beef is also incredibly expensive as the supply is so limited, so if you see “Kobe beef” on the menu for a cheap price, be wary.

Examples of False Advertising in Food

There have been a number of class action lawsuits recently that target big food corporations for using intentionally misleading language or outright lying about their foods. Many of these lawsuits involve fraudulent claims that a food is “natural” or “organic” when it does not actually meet the standards to make those claims.

Some notable examples of false advertising in the food world have included:

  • Kellogg claimed that Rice Krispies cereal could boost the immune system, and it also claimed that Frosted Mini Wheats cereal could improve attentiveness.
  • Red Bull energy drink implied that it could improve your physical and mental prowess through the slogan “Red Bull Gives You Wings.”
  • Nutella claimed that its sugary hazelnut spread was healthy for children.
  • Kashi, a subsidiary of Kellogg, claimed that its cereals were “all-natural,” when in fact they contained synthetic ingredients.
Nutella is far too delicious to be healthy

What Can You Do About Food Mislabeling and False Advertising?

If you have been a victim of false advertising or eaten a food that you thought was one thing but it turned out to be another, you can contact a lawyer and see about a class action lawsuit. Large corporations and restaurants are motivated by profits over all, so suing them is an effective way to both bring the issue at hand to light and to impose a monetary punishment on them.

Food mislabeling and false advertising are serious issues. Consumers have a right to know exactly what they’re eating, and they also have a right not to be lied to by exaggerated, misleading, or outright false marketing claims.

Paul Markoff

Written by

Markoff Leinberger is a consumer protection law firm located in Chicago, IL. We fight for consumers whose rights have been violated by illegal conduct.