Illustration for article titled Do you know what’s in your turmeric?
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Interest in turmeric has exploded among North Americans over the last decade thanks to changing tastes and (at times overblown) health claims. It’s hard to say how much of the earthy and vibrant yellow-orange spice we’ve been sprinkling over our food or gulping down in the form of golden milk tonics, as opposed to swallowing it as supplements. But we do know that turmeric sales in the U.S. spiked over the last five years, from $163 million in 2014 to $375 million in 2019 by one estimate, and they’re still climbing.

We also know that, thanks to this popularity, turmeric has become a hot target for food fraudsters—criminals lurking in food supply chains who spike products with additives or pass off entirely fake goods as if they’re the real deal. Nobody really knows at this time exactly how much turmeric on the market is fraudulent, says Sylvain Charlebois, an expert on food distribution and security at Dalhousie University. But, he adds, “we do believe a great number of batches have been adulterated.”

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Food fraud has likely been a consistent problem since people started selling food to each other. But it’s not a consistent problem across every type of food. Some fraudsters target high-volume staples like grains, mixing them with cheap fillers to make a higher profit margin on a small amount of actual, as-advertised goods. Records from the 17th century show that mixing chalk into flour was common in some nations. But many scammers seem to prefer to go after low-volume trendy or luxury foods, eager to make big profits off of people willing to pay premium prices. When they’re confident that most consumers won’t be able to tell if something is off, fraudsters might swap out whole items. It’s exceptionally common—at times more the rule than the exception—for fish vendors and restaurants to pass off low-cost species as high-end catch. However, far more often, fraudsters prefer to work with powdered or liquid products that pass through complex supply chains, which are easier to fake or fix without detection. Alcohol, extra virgin olive oil, honey, and powdered spices are all perennial targets, although the most targeted spices fluctuate with food trends.

The illicit and ever-changing nature of food scams makes it hard to get good data on how much of any given product is fraudulent. The Consumer Brand Association (until recently known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association) recently estimated that up to 10% of all commercially available foods worldwide are in some way fraudulent. But rates of fraud in high-risk products can be much higher. Recent studies of extra virgin olive oil suggest that up to 69% of bottles researchers sampled were not extra virgin, or in many cases even olive oil. However, no experts we spoke to for this story knew of estimates for current rates of turmeric fraud. [Editor’s note: These studies were from 2010 and 2011, and the North American Olive Oil Association has disputed their validity, claiming that “the quality of imported olive oil has greatly improved over the past few years.”]

They do know that there are multiple forms and levels of fraud affecting the turmeric on our shelves. Many turmeric farmers and processors in India, which produces about 80% of the world’s turmeric, and Bangladesh, the second-largest turmeric producer, sometimes add colorants to whole root or powdered product because the spice “has traditionally been sold based on the strength of its color,” says John G. Keogh, an expert on food supply chains who has studied fraud. Other processors and vendors mix their turmeric with fillers to increase their profit margins. Much of this adulteration is ad hoc, a desperate bid by farmers or retailers just trying to get by. But, Keogh notes, some of it might be more systemic, and at times even coordinated by organized criminal outfits. (The Italian mafia, after all, has played a major role in olive oil fraud and other agricultural crimes throughout its history—but especially in recent years, as authorities have cracked down on their high-profile drug trafficking operations.)

Some of this turmeric fraud involves food-grade or body-safe dyes and fillers, explains Karen Everstine of Decernis, a tech firm that works on supply chain safety issues and maintains a Food Fraud Database. Many fillers are relatively flavorless starch powders, or less desirable relatives of turmeric such as white or Javanese ginger. (Related fillers may actually contain similar levels of curcumin, the active ingredient that many people are seeking in turmeric for its health benefits.) Sure, this form of fraud is a bummer for consumers who don’t get what they thought they were paying for. And Everstine notes that it can put a real dent into the bottom line of honest traders who have trouble competing with fraudulent processors or retailers. But ultimately, she points out, this sort of turmeric fraud is relatively harmless for consumers. Unless, of course, someone has a severe allergy to one of these undeclared adulterants. But allergies to the most common turmeric adulterants are rare.

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However, turmeric producers and processors occasionally color whole roots and powders with industrial dyes like acid orange 7, metanil yellow, Sudan red, or lead chromate, which impart vibrant colors to dull turmeric or fillers, but which are never safe to eat—especially those that contain lead. In 2011, the United States detected excessive levels of lead in 15 turmeric brands, all of which were recalled. In 2019, Consumer Reports found dangerous levels of lead in one of 13 major turmeric products it sampled. A number of studies in between, some investigating lead poisoning cases, have found at times shockingly high levels of lead in turmeric as well. Although some reports hedge and speculate that lead might have leached into turmeric roots through soil contamination, Everstine argues that the levels of lead detected in some of these studies “are not consistent with environmental contamination and indicate the intentional use of lead-based dyes” in food fraud.

It’s difficult to evaluate the level of risk posed by lead contamination in adulterated turmeric. That depends on the unique nature of adulteration in each batch, as well as how much of that batch one uses, how consistently, and for how long. Symptoms of lead poisoning range from irritability and vomiting to hearing loss and seizures, and the affliction can stunt childhood development. However, cases of lead poisoning linked to adulterated turmeric are still exceedingly rare.

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Whenever governments and brands realize that a product is at risk of fraud, says Keogh, they respond with inspection measures and put pressure on suppliers to police themselves. Major companies in organized supply chains, such as McCormick, “do a great job doing source and quality verification of their products.” He adds that researchers are developing more sophisticated risk assessment models and tests.

But even the most competent governments and retailers have limited screening capabilities. And Keogh admits that organized criminals often figure out how to game any checks that are put in place. He suspects that a significant amount of adulterated turmeric comes into the United States via networks of suitcase couriers, paid between $20 and $200 to bring bags of spice in their personal luggage, which is often not carefully checked. They then feed that turmeric into the market via unscrupulous brands or undiscerning stores. Fraudsters also get into arms races with states and retailers, adds Everstine, coming up with new forms of adulteration that won’t trip tests.

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So how are we, as consumers, supposed to protect ourselves from the annoyances and risks of turmeric fraud, especially when you might not be able to tell something’s off by color, scent, or flavor? Well, you can find a number of at-home tests described online, some of which are simple (e.g. put your turmeric in warm water and see if it separates into layers of filler and turmeric or leaches off color), but many of which are impractical for most folks (e.g. apply hydrochloric acid to a solution of turmeric powder in water to detect lead). However, not all of these tests are reliable.

Really, Everstine says, the best thing consumers can do is also the easiest: “Buy from companies that have a vested interest in protecting their brand image and their customers and that have measures in place to ensure the integrity of their supply chains.” Most of the major spice brands and supermarkets in North America sell legitimate and safe turmeric most of the time, says Keogh, with most fraud clustered in the sorts of shops that sell big bags of spice with no labels, or brands you’ve never heard of. If a brand seems drastically cheaper than other options, Everstine adds, it’s best to be wary. And Keogh cannot stress enough that people should not buy spices from unknown brands or retailers online, even if they have good ratings. “In a lot of cases, these are fraudulent as well,” he points out.

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If you’re not sure if you should trust a brand, Keogh says, then you should reach out and ask about its sourcing and testing practices. Reputable companies will be able to quickly and efficiently send you comprehensive rundowns of their security protocols. It may be worth asking brands to cough up that sort of information even if you aren’t particularly afraid that they might be selling fake turmeric or other spices as well. That kind of attention and feedback is one of the most powerful tools that we as individuals have to force companies to fight back against fraud.

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