Belfast Scientists: Many Popular Spices Are Fake

Scientists at Queen's University of Belfast are well aware that cheap oregano contains ingredients that are not related to oregano. Another popular condiment, sage, is also often far less natural than desired. To make it clear why scammers would counterfeit spices, it is important to understand their monetary value. Often we buy them in retail stores at a very low price. But if we compare the price per kilogram of some expensive spices, such as vanilla or saffron, we will see that it is almost equal to the price of silver and gold.

The scammers do have a motive - in this complex multi-billion dollar industry, huge fortunes are made from fake herbs and spices. Like drugs, these food ingredients go through many hands and intermediaries. They are treated with inexpensive chemicals for better storage, or diluted to increase weight. Fragrant herbs, for example, are complemented with any green leaves, and spices in general with anything - from brick chips to toxic industrial dyes.

A team of scientists from Belfast has developed a method for detecting oregano's "chemical fingerprints" using molecular spectroscopy. Together with the use of the statistical chemometry method, this allows the seasoning to be scanned and a counterfeit identified within seconds. Thus, 100 samples purchased in the UK from large and small retailers and online sellers were tested. It turned out that 25% of all oregano in the UK contains olive and myrtle leaves. In South Africa and Australia, the counterfeiting rate exceeded 50%. This study shocked the food industry and authorities and led to stricter quality control in the spice market.

The story doesn't end there. Recently it became known that the dried sage, which is usually associated with Catholic Christmas, is also far from real. This time, testing showed that 25% of the samples were fake. Some of the ingredients found in sage include olive leaves, myrtle leaves, hazelnut and strawberry tree leaves, and sumac. All fake samples were purchased from either small retail stores or online stores. Major retailers had 100% genuine products. This is explained by the fact that large networks have stricter control for fear of tarnishing their reputation. But the problem of online counterfeiting is very relevant, since many Internet platforms are actively used and gaining popularity.

The battle with the scammers continues. The latest breakthrough is in tiny handheld scanners that connect to smartphones. This means that in the future, testing can be carried out anywhere and at any point in the supply chain, and this will greatly complicate the work of fraudsters. But for now, the best way to protect yourself is to buy spices and herbs only from reliable suppliers and not believe too attractive offers.