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Beware of food fraud

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How do you know the product you're eating contains what the label says it does?

The reality is you can't know for sure, not unless you have the food tested in an accredited laboratory, and few of us have the money, time or inclination to do that.

So we trust. And every now and then we have reason to wonder how often that trust is abused, most spectacularly a few years ago when a disturbing percentage of processed meat products bought in butcheries across the country were found by Stellenbosch University food scientists to be mislabelled, one of them containing donkey meat.

If you have concerns about a product's label claims, you can ask the nonprofit group Topic (Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers) to have it tested.

The group reported that Futurelife Crunch Smart Food cereal's "non-GMO" label claim had been confirmed by independent laboratory tests.

About a year ago, Topic investigated the "sugar-free" and "gluten-free" claims of Freedom Bakery in Bergvliet, Cape Town. By the time their lab tests were done, bakery owner Natasha Mandiringa had removed the claims from her product labels after customer queries, but was still verbally claiming her products were free from sugar and gluten to those who asked, and continues to do so.

Topic sent a chickpea and banana loaf for gluten testing and a lemon meringue tart for sugar testing at separate laboratories.

The tart was found to comprise 33.7% sucrose; a product may only be labelled sugar-free if it contains no more than 0.5% sugar.

Topic found that the coconut nectar that was used, while natural and not an added sugar, caused the sucrose result and thus the product could not be called "sugar-free".

The chickpea and banana loaf was 800 times more than the 20mg/kg limit acceptable for a product to be labelled "gluten-free", despite the declared main ingredients - chickpea flour and coconut flour - both being naturally gluten-free products and Mandiringa having produced lab tests from the chickpea flour supplier showing undetectable amounts of gluten.

"It seems that ingredients which on the face of it should be gluten-free, seem to contain large amounts of gluten," said Topic's Peter Becker. "This highlights a challenge for small-scale food product manufacturers, for whom the costs of regular laboratory testing are prohibitive."

This month a Cape Town consumer told In Your Corner the sweet potato loaf and coconut rolls she bought from Freedom Bakery looked and smelled like "normal wheat products" and she was concerned as she avoids gluten products for health reasons.

"I paid R45 for six rolls and R45 for the loaf of bread, and the wraps cost R60. So those rolls cost more than R7 each, compared with R1.75 for a white wheat roll from a nearby supermarket's bakery.

"No one can make rolls look like that using bicarb, coconut flour, coconut milk and salt."

I asked the complainant to buy fresh bread products from Freedom Bakery and arranged to have them tested by the Food and Allergy and Consulting Services laboratory in Stellenbosch, the first in South Africa to be able to detect and quantify traces of contaminant allergens in food products.

The lab tested the bakery's coconut rolls and quinoa and millet rolls for gluten and wheat four times and reported: "The samples tested positive for the presence of wheat. It may be concluded that they contain levels of gluten consistent with what is expected to be found in wheat flour-based rolls."

This month, Mandiringa posted this reply on her bakery's Facebook page in response to a comment: "We don't mill our own flours . we buy ready-milled flours, and also our products are not tested. We bake in faith of our dry ingredients that we source from different companies."

Asked to respond to the lab results, Mandiringa didn't comment on the wheat finding, claiming she was the victim of "a malicious and vicious attack".

"I can try to defend myself all over again as I did last year but I just don't have the energy or resources to do so," she said.

She invited me to spend a day baking the products with her. "I use particular fermentation techniques, I don't simply substitute a wheat flour for a gluten-free flour, but mix and allow to stand. This creates the texture that is baffling my attackers."

The fact is that both those rolls have been scientifically proven to contain wheat, and thus gluten, contrary to what was stated on the label. That's food fraud.

And it has serious ethical and health implications.

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