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Are you buying the real thing? Fake foods and how to identify them

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7 min read
AUTHOR: Carol Wilson
Antique italian house

How sure are you that the luxury food items you’ve splashed out on is the real thing and not fake foods?  Unfortunately, the chances are that it may not be at all.

Several expensive food items are prone to fraudsters who add extra bulk, mislabel products, or substitute products for something else completely. 

Last year, for example, Spanish authorities uncovered a scheme in Spain where saffron was mixed with spices and chemicals to inflate the price.

So what are the most common fake foods and how can they be identified?


Saffron is cultivated commercially in Iran, India, Greece, Italy, Spain and France and is the world’s most expensive spice with a unique aroma and vibrant orange/yellow colour. Its intriguing flavour has been variously described as pungent, delicate, penetrating, warm and spicy. 

Its inimitable fragrance, vivid colour and medicinal properties have made it one of the most sought after spices since the Middle Ages. The name is a combination of the Middle Eastern words, sahafarn (thread) and za’faran (yellow).

Saffron is available as threads (filaments) and ground into a powder, although the deep orange- red filaments are preferable to the powder as the latter can be more easily adulterated. The filaments can be adulterated with other flower stamens such as safflowers or other petals and plant fibres. Colouring is also added to mimic saffron, but imitation  saffron has neither the aroma or taste of the real thing. Genuine saffron has a complex, earthy slightly bittersweet taste.

The orange thread-like filaments are the dried stigmas of a flowering plant, Crocus Sativus Linneaus.  The attractive purple blooms bear red stigmas and yellow stamens.

The delicate flowers appear in the autumn, when they are immediately gathered by hand the early mornings, before they wilt in the hot sun. It takes around 200,000 blooms and many hours of arduous work to produce just 1 kilo of saffron; the demanding labour required is the reason why saffron is so costly.

Each flower contains just three stigmas.  The yellow-orange stigmas contain crocin – the source of saffron’s strong colouring property; bitter-crocin, which gives the spice its distinctive aroma and taste and tiny amount of essential oil, and picrocrocin, which is responsible for saffron’s therapeutic properties. The stigmas are removed by hand and dried over a low heat, which reduces their weight by about 80%. The saffron filaments are packaged whole in sealed containers in order to guarantee their purity and also to protect their strong aroma.

If the price seems inexplicably low, be suspicious – there are quite a few impostors on the market!

Balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar (the name means ‘like balsam’ and indicates its rich spicy aroma and resinous texture) is very dark, and syrupy with a sweet-sour taste and has been aged for a very long time, at least 12 years, to reach that consistency. Anything younger is not traditional balsamic vinegar. Some balsamic vinegars are aged for more than 25 years and can cost over £100.

The unfiltered juice of freshly crushed white grapes, along with the stems, skin, and seeds is boiled down to a syrupy liquid, which is then aged in wooden barrels and stored to ensure the right atmosphere for the essential fermentation. The vinegar is then transferred to wooden barrels  (oak, cherry or chestnut for example)  where it picks up natural yeasts and other elements from the wood as it matures and mellows. It’s this that results  in its amazingly complex flavour.

Two traditional balsamic vinegars are protected by the European Union Protected Designation of OriginAceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP  and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, produced respectively in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. These are made from reduced grape must and aged for a minimum of 12 years in wooden casks made of different woods.

Authentic balsamic vinegar is sweet enough to taste on its own – a practice not recommended for cheap balsamic vinegars.
Some mass produced balsamic vinegars  have added sugar to speed up the fermentation process and are often flavoured and coloured with caramel. Others are made by mixing grape must with wine vinegar and matured for less time, so they lack the consistency and taste of true balsamic.

Store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dark place away from heat. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated and will keep indefinitely. Any sediment at the bottom of the bottle occurs as a result of the ageing process and isn’t harmful.


Wasabi, a bright green paste that’s often served as an accompaniment to sushi, sashimi and other Japanese dishes, is also known as Japanese horseradish and has a slightly sweet floral flavour with a bite.  Genuine wasabi is expensive and loses its distinctive flavour if it is dried.  The wasabi plant (Wasabia japonica or Eutrema japonicum) is  very difficult to grow, which accounts for its  high price.

The condiment is made by  grating the wasabi rhizome (the underground stem of the plant) which causes its volatile compounds to break down and produce its unique taste.  Low-priced imitation wasabi on the other hand, contains only a minute amount of wasabi, mixed with horseradish, mustard flour, cornflour and green food colouring and has a very strong taste, quite unlike the real thing, which has a  fragrant fresh clean spicy flavour, but is nowhere near as pungent as its imitation.

Extra virgin olive oil

In Europe, extra virgin olive oil is produced mostly in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and, on a much smaller scale in France, is time consuming and costly to produce, so is often faked- usually by mixing an amount of genuine extra-virgin olive oil with less expensive, low-quality oil, or another olive oil of lower quality.

Genuine extra virgin olive oil will solidify in cooler temperatures, so put it in the fridge for a while; if it comes out cloudier and thicker, it is more likely to be authentic, but there are other mixes of oils that can also do this, so it’s not a guaranteed indicator.

If you want to be certain of buying high quality, genuine olive oil, it’s best to buy it from small producers or trusted suppliers, who often sell online.  

Understanding the label

Cold-pressed: the olives are pressed below 27°C and the oil has a superior flavour. Those labelled ‘First Cold-Pressing Extra Virgin’, can be single estate or a blend of oils from several producers. ‘First cold-pressing’ tells you that this is the first squeezing of the olives and that the oil contains less than 1% acidity.  The acidity in olive oil is determined by the season’s harvest and helps to determine its quality. The lower the acidity the better quality the oil.

Filtered or non-filtered: filtering produces a clearer oil, while, unfiltered oil contains some olive fruit particles and a little water, which gives it a cloudy appearance. It has a slightly stronger flavour than filtered.

Extra virgin olive oils lose much of their character if heated. Store unopened bottles of olive oil in a cool dark place for up to two years. Once opened, store in the fridge where the oil will become cloudy as it chills. Return to room temperature and the oil will  become clear again.

A  definite giveaway of whether a luxury food item is authentic is the price – it’s certainly well worth seeking out the genuine product and paying more to experience the true flavour.


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