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What's Really on Your Plate?

By Natasha Cary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Whilst filling up our trolleys as we browse the supermarket aisles, we rarely question the legitimacy of the packaging and labels on our favourite foods. We tend to completely trust the descriptions given by manufacturers, which may state products to be high quality, organic, free-range or good value. Yet how often do you find yourself doubting such claims? Are we, as consumers, too trusting of the items we fill our fridges with? Recent studies have suggested that as much as a third of products are mislabelled [1] and that we may not be eating exactly what we believe we are.

An example which hit the headlines not so long ago was the horsemeat scandal; finding that many beef products contained equine DNA led to feelings of shock, disgust and betrayal across the nation. Without scientific investigation into the makeup of these meats, the majority of consumers would have remained unaware. Our inability to carry out such tests at home means that we can only rely on our senses i.e. these fraudulent burgers appeared to be beef in terms of their appearance and taste, despite their later discovered hidden identity. This raises the issue that manufacturers may be abusing the consumer’s lack of scientific knowledge in order to make shortcuts in food production.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Furthermore, adulteration of foods often occurs as a means of reducing production costs and maximising profit. One case stands out here – Italian water buffalo Mozzarella cheese. This type of mozzarella is a popular Italian product certified by the European Protected Designation of Origin. [2] Mozzarella can also be made from cow’s milk, but this type would not receive PDO certification and would be much cheaper to make. The significant costing differences between these types means that many manufacturers are tempted to use some cow’s milk mixed with the buffalo milk. However, investigation with the Polymerase Chain Reaction (a scientific technique also known as PCR in which fragments of DNA can be amplified and analysed) has found bovine milk within water buffalo mozzarella samples. [3,4] With consumers still paying buffalo prices for partly bovine cheese, this is an undoubtedly unfair situation.

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It certainly seems like something fishy is going on. In fact, the Food Standards Association suggested in 2008 that 10% of fish dishes from catering establishments were not those described on menus. Findings from another study claim that 7 % of products labelled as cod in the United Kingdom and 28 % in Ireland contain substitutes, such as pollock and whiting. [5] Although these substitutes are perfectly safe to eat, the consumer is still being misled in a completely unacceptable way. Nevertheless, DNA testing has vastly improved in recent years and will hopefully result in forensic approaches to food, with vigilant checks carried out before items find themselves on our supermarket shelves.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Such dishonesty does not only occur in food products – supplements may also be affected. Many people take cod liver oil as a source of omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins A and C [6] but its high value and difficulty to acquire puts it at risk of adulteration. Peter Berry Ottaway went to extreme lengths to evaulate this risk. [2] Through analysis of sterol profiles, he found that those of cod and rape seed vary. He then used High Performance Liquid Chromatography (an analytical technique used to separate, identify and quantify components of a mixture) to investigate cod liver oil supplements and consequently found them to be 12 to 13 % rapeseed oil. Other supplements and vitamins make false promises to consumers – 88 % of samples tested in West Yorkshire Public Laboratory made unrealistic health claims which fail to be backed up by scientific evidence. [1] It is a terrible realisation that the supplements so many of us take daily with our breakfasts may not be promoting our health to the extent we thought they were – it seems like a waste of both our money and our time, whilst fraudulent companies continue to reap the benefits of their dishonesty.

Unless drastic changes occur in food monitoring and labelling, we can expect this fraud to continue. Although testing techniques have notably improved, the competitive nature of the food industry may encourage manufacturers to cut costs in food production by any means possible, potentially leading to more cases of untrustworthy labelling and hidden ingredients.


  1. F. Lawrence, 2014. Fake-food scandal revealed as tests show third of products mislabelled. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 February 2014].
  2. B. Perks, 2007. Fighting food fraud with science. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 February 2014].
  3. R. Lopparelli et al., Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2007, 9, 3429-34.
  4. M. Feligini et al., Food Technology and Biotechnology, 2005, 43, 91-95.
  5. J. Meikle, 2013. Cod and chips could be a load of pollock. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 18 February 2014].
  6. J. Nordqvist, 2013. What are the benefits of cod liver oil?. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 February 2014].

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