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Are These ‘16 Easy Tests’ to Check Whether Food Is ‘Fake or Real’?

A viral video took off on Facebook in June 2019, but its claims about food safety were far from unadulterated.

In June 2019, tens of millions of Facebook users watched and shared a viral video that purported to demonstrate “16 easy tests” to determine whether certain foods and drinks were “fake” or “real.”

The video was posted on 1 June by Blossom, a digital publishing brand that creates viral content, often in the form of “listicles” — “8 ways to transform and upgrade your wardrobe,” “3 oddly satisfying stress relievers,” “4 super cool ways to use ice cube trays,” and so on. Within a few days, viewers shared the video more than 3.5 million times and viewed it more than 95 million times.

The video purports to show short clips of DIY food “experiments,” along with subtitles that add a degree of detail:

The 16 tests outlined in the video constituted a mixture of falsehoods, recycled urban myths, one or two experiments that have a grain of truth to them, and several tests that address types of adulteration that are absent from the United States and many other countries but have been reported in India and parts of the developing world. On the whole, the video served its viewers poorly as a source of reliable information about food safety and adulteration.

In a statement sent in response to the spread of the video, a spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told:

Federal law requires that food is safe and properly labeled. For example, all food additives and color additives must be approved by FDA before market entry, and the labeling of food must be truthful and not misleading. We take food contamination and fraud very seriously and do take action when problems arise, especially if it appears that the adulteration was intentional. Consumers should rest assured that most of the practices illustrated in this video are not legal in the U.S. and any FDA-regulated product that violates or appears to the violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, may be subject to seizure, mandatory recall, or other enforcement action … Consumers should be able to trust that the foods they eat are safe and videos like these can undermine the confidence consumers have in the FDA’s role in maintaining the safety our food supply …

For its part, First Media, the company that operates the Blossom brand, told us via a spokesperson: “The video does not claim that all products or specific manufacturers include these materials, nor does it make any health or nutritional suggestions or recommendations. They are demonstrations of things we consider to be important for our global audience, however, this content is intended only for informational purposes and as entertainment.”

We sent the video and its 16 claims to Eric Decker, head of the Department of Food Science in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, one of the leading academic food science programs in the United States. Here is our breakdown of the 16 tests, based on Decker’s assessments and the supporting evidence provided.

1. “Processed cheese with chemicals is difficult to melt”: FALSE

The claim that processed cheese is hard to melt is an old one, and a subject we have previously examined in detail. It first emerged in late 2014 when internet users began posting videos of themselves setting fire to slices of American cheese in an effort to prove that the cheese was “fake.”

When asked for supporting evidence, a spokesperson for First Media directed us to a 2015 Vice News article and wrote: “Processed cheese contains an added ingredient known as ‘Emulsifying Salt’ which is known to ‘help bind fats, proteins, and water in cheese.’” Interestingly, the Vice article that First Media relied on as evidence carried the headline “Stop Setting Your Cheese on Fire” and warned: “Videos purporting to demonstrate the evil stuff in processed cheese have started making the rounds online. Problem is, they don’t prove anything except how little we know about our food.”

In response to this section of the video, Decker told us:

“That’s exactly the opposite of reality … There are additives that are added to processed cheese to help the cheese melt … They take real cheese and they add what they call chelating salts and things like citric acid. That helps break the protein [casein] down. The protein in regular cheese is very aggregated together. So when you melt it, you see these clumps. If you can get those proteins to come apart, then it’s much easier to melt the cheese.” [Emphasis is added].

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