• A Complete Guide to Food Fraud & Foodomics

Mass Spectrometry & Spectroscopy

A Complete Guide to Food Fraud & Foodomics

Jul 15 2022

From Spanish olive oil and 100% beef burgers to French wine and Arabica coffee, food and beverage products aren’t always what they seem. Whether accidental or malicious, fraud has plagued the industry for centuries. The first cases date back to the Roman Empire, when historians documented incidents of adulterated oils and wines.

The Food Fraud Prevention Think Tank established at Michigan State University defines food fraud as “a collective term encompassing the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, labeling, product information or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain that could impact consumer health.”

Despite enormous progress over recent years, the Consumer Brands Association estimates food fraud costs the global industry between US$30 to $40 billion every year. Approximately 10% of commercially manufactured products are compromised by fraud, with everything from chocolate to baby formula affected. When additional costs such as the health of consumers and damage to brand reputation is factored in, the figure is even higher.

Tackling food fraud with science

Science plays a critical role in helping to prevent food fraud and protect the interests of consumers, brands and supply chain parties. Analytical techniques vary enormously depending on sample types, laboratory facilities and analytical goals.

Below, we take a closer look at food fraud and the steps being taken to tackle the global issue.

The origins of food fraud research

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor at Purdue University in Indiana, was a pioneer of food fraud detection methods. He started with methods to detect glucose in sugars and syrups, eventually publishing a paper on the subject in 1881.

Wiley then developed methods to detect formaldehyde in milk. In the 19th century, the carcinogenic and highly toxic chemical was being added to the popular dairy product to extend shelf life. Wiley and his ‘poison squad’ team made global headlines in the late 1800s following an investigation into “embalmed beef” used to feed troops during the American-Cuban war.

While the US Secretary of War was advised to source beef locally from Cuba and Puerto Rico, he insisted on supporting the US meatpacking industry. Chemicals were used to preserve canned beef during transportation, which led to widespread food poisoning and fatalities among soldiers. The incident quickly escalated into a political scandal, with President William McKinley forced to ask the US Secretary of War to resign.

The embalmed meat scandal transformed the face of the US food and beverage industry forever. It sparked calls for new modern food safety laws and led to the introduction of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The act set a new standard for accountability and transparency in the food and beverage sector, however it hasn’t eliminated fraud completely.

Below are some of the most common products that continue to be plagued by food fraud:

  • Olive oil

Oils are often substituted or blended with cheaper alternatives, such as canola or sunflower.

  • Seafood

Fish such as snapper and yellowtail tuna are mislabelled to increase profits or evade marine conservation laws. A recent DNA-based study from marine charity Oceana found that seafood fraud is widespread in Canada. Almost 50% of samples taken from supermarkets and restaurants were mislabelled, including incidents where tuna was replaced with escolar, a fish that can cause serious gastrointestinal illness.

  • Milk-based products

Milk from cows and other animals is watered down or laced with powders to increase creaminess. Adding supplements to increase protein content is also an issue that plagues the dairy industry. In 2008, the Chinese milk industry was apprehended for adding a chemical called melamine to milk formula products to increase protein content. An estimated 300,000 babies fell ill, with several dying from fatal kidney damage.

  • Honey and maple syrup

Substitutes such as corn syrup, sugar syrup, glucose, fructose and beet sugar are used to dilute premium honey and maple syrup products.

  • Coffee and tea

Low quality coffee is passed off as a product from coveted growing regions such as Costa Rica and Guatemala. Tea can also be cut with dried leaves, twigs and even sawdust.  

  • Spices

From oregano and turmeric to paprika and star anise, spices are expensive and often subject to food fraud using artificial colours, flavours and inauthentic ingredients.

  • Organic products

Organic products are usually priced higher than their non-organic counterparts as they’re more expensive to produce. Over the past decade, an increase in demand for organic products has triggered a spike in fraudulent organic labelling.

Tackling food fraud

In the United States, the Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) based at the University of Minnesota is spearheading the fight against food fraud. The institute was founded to reduce fraudulent activity within the food system and protect the interests of both producers and consumers.

“With a keen eye for disruption, the Institute focuses on reducing the potential for contamination at any point along the food supply chain and places a high priority on addressing potential threats to the food system that could lead to catastrophic damage to public health or the economy,” reads the FPDI website.

Categorising food fraud

The FPDI categorises food fraud into the following groups:


The finished product has been contaminated with counterfeit ingredients


Genuine product modified, usually to sabotage the brand or harm the consumer


Genuine product produced exceeding production agreements


Genuine product stolen from manufacturer and illegally sold


Genuine product is illegally distributed outside legal markets


Fake product is passed off as a legitimate product


The entire product is fake and disguised as authentic

The advent of foodomics

Food fraud is a global issue with widespread economic, public health and environmental consequences. To tackle the issue, scientists are embracing a novel discipline called foodomics. In an article published in the journal Foods, the author describes foodomics as “a discipline that explores the fields of food and nutrition through the application of omics technologies. This discipline employs high-resolution techniques such as mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, and next-generation sequencing, as well as a variety of mathematical and computer tools to handle and interpret data.”

What are omics technologies?

Genetic studies was one of the first disciplines to receive the “omics” suffix. This expanded focus to the study of entire genomes, as opposed to individual genes and variants.

“High-throughput technologies have revolutionised medical research. The advent of genotyping arrays enabled large-scale genome-wide association studies and methods for examining global transcript levels, which gave rise to the field of “integrative genetics”,” write the authors of a study published in the journal Genome Biology. “Other omics technologies, such as proteomics and metabolomics, are now often incorporated into the everyday methodology of biological researchers.”

The global role of foodomics

On a global scale, foodomics has the potential to not only combat food fraud but improve public health and address climate change. In a Frontiers in Nutrition article, the authors stress foodomics is the key to meeting a myriad of health, nutritional and environmental goals.

“Defining food composition in its full chemical and quantitative diversity is central to data-driven decision making for supporting nutrition and sustainable diets,” reads the article.

Analytical detection methods for food fraud

Analytical techniques play a key role in preventing food fraud. In general, testing can be categorised as targeted or non-targeted. We take a closer look at each below:

Targeted testing methods

Targeted methods use highly specific authenticity markers to assess purity and detect food fraud. Scientists rely on a variety of techniques, including traditional wet chemistry methods and advanced liquid chromatographic mass spectrometry methods. PCR testing and DNA sequencing are widely used in food analysis labs. QuEChERS solid phase extraction is used to screen organic products and detect traces of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Non-targeted testing methods

Non-targeted methods use a chemical fingerprint to detect food fraud, as opposed to specific markers. This expands the scope of analysis and allows scientists to assess purity and detect unknown contaminants. A variety of analytical methods are used for non-targeted analysis, including MALDI (Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionisation) coupled with Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS) to develop a molecular profile.

“The basic idea is that a sample can be tested against a known set of verified authentic materials to determine if its composition is within a range of parameters to indicate it is not adulterated,” explain food analysis scientists Karen Everstine, PhD, MPH, and Jennifer van de Ligt. “If that is not the case, the sample can be considered possibly adulterated and targeted testing can confirm the nature of the adulterants.”

Techniques such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), Raman Spectroscopy and Near-Infrared (NIR) Spectroscopy are combined with next-generation chemometrics software to profile food samples. Liquid Chromatography is also used alongside high resolution detection methods such as Mass Spectrometry (MS) and Tandem Mass Spectrometry (MS/MS). 

Promoting accountability across the supply chain

Advances in omics technologies, data analysis and supply chain software have drastically improved non-targeted testing over the past few years. Moving forward, Everstine and van de Ligt say non-targeted testing will make it easier to detect fraud and trace it directly back to the culprit.

“This type of transparency would increase the risk of being detected to such a level that fraud prevalence should decrease,” they add.

Fraud isn’t the only concern in the food and beverage industry, with bacteria such as salmonella a major public health risk. Find out more about the important role food analysis testing has to play when it comes to preventing outbreaks of salmonella and other food-borne illnesses in ‘Can You Test for Salmonella in Food?'. Or read 'Accurate Testing Keeps Farm Animals Healthy' to discover the role of testing on animals at the very start of the food production chain.

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