Herby fraud: One in four samples of sage contain the leaves of other plants, study finds

  • More than 25 per cent of samples of the herb sage were found to be adulterated
  • Scientists found olive leaves and leaves from other trees though none were toxic
  • The same team of experts discovered adulterated oregano samples back in 2015

More than a quarter of samples of the popular herb sage contain leaves from other plants, according to a new analysis. 

Lab tests have shown that just over 25 per cent of analysed sage samples were heavily adulterated with leaves from other trees.  

One of the ‘sage’ samples was made up of just 42 per cent sage and an astonishing 58 per cent other leaves. 

All of the samples that were found to be adulterated were purchased from small, independent retail chains or from global online retailers and not from UK supermarket chains.

The experts from the University of Belfast discovered heavily adulterated oregano samples back in 2015, which they say have improved since. 

Queen’s University Belfast found more than a quarter of samples of the popular herb were adulterated – some by as much as 58 per cent

Queen’s University Belfast found more than a quarter of samples of the popular herb were adulterated – some by as much as 58 per cent

WHAT IS SAGE? 

Sage (salvia officinalis) is a versatile herb used in strews, stuffing mixtures for poultry and as an accompaniment to lamb or pork. 

It has a pronounced herbal flavour that is earthy and slightly peppery with hints of eucalyptus and lemon. 

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The delicate flowers are also edible and may be added to salads. 

Fresh sage is much less bitter than dried sage but both versions have a strong flavour and should be used sparingly. 

Sage is rarely used raw, as its flavour is more desirable when cooked.   

The sage plant is native to Mediterranean regions such as Greece and Italy, although it has naturalised well in the UK and will survive harsh winters.

Sage has been used as a healing herb since the Dark Ages. 

The ancient Greeks and Romans used sage as an antidote to snakebites and brewed into a tea to relieve headaches. 

Source: HerbExpert.co.uk 

‘The potential to cheat in these supply chains has been recognised as a global issue,’ said Professor Christopher Elliott at Queen’s University Belfast. 

‘We have identified a major problem linked to the supply chains associated with supplies of herbs and spices to the UK consumer.’ 

For the study, 19 samples of sage were examined between August and September 2020 at the university’s Institute for Global Food Security. 

The methods used in the 2020 study comprised a blend of spectroscopy and chemometric modelling to identify a food ‘fingerprint’. 

The samples were bought from major online retailers, smaller, independent shops such as ethnic grocery stores and ‘all the well-known UK supermarkets’.

The team found none of the brands sold by the big UK supermarket chains were found to be fraudulent.

Only some sage sold by online retailers and smaller independent businesses were found to have been bulked out with olive leaves or leaves from other trees. 

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Professor Elliott told MailOnline that his team are still investigating what some of this other plant material actually is.  

The leaves that were detected were judged to not be harmful or have any adverse effects once eaten.   

In 2015, in partnership with consumer champion Which?, Belfast found that around one in four samples contained ingredients that were not oregano. 

19 out of 78 products tested by experts contained ingredients such as olive or myrtle leaves, making up between 30 per cent and 70 per cent of the contents. 

At the time, Richard Lloyd executive director at Which?, said: ‘It’s impossible for any shopper to tell, without the help of scientists, what herbs they’re actually buying. 

Sage (salvia officinalis) in the garden. The delicate flowers are also edible and may be added to salads

Sage (salvia officinalis) in the garden. The delicate flowers are also edible and may be added to salads

‘Retailers, producers and enforcement officers must step up checks to stamp out food fraud.’  

The findings were followed up by a number of food-standards agencies around the world, resulting in at least one prosecution.  

Adulteration in oregano has apparently reduced significantly since 2015, the team have announced.

A total of 20 oregano samples were tested alongside the sage for this new research in summer 2020 as a follow-up. 

The experts from the University of Belfast discovered heavily adulterated oregano samples back in 2015, which they say have improved since. Pictured, raw green Oregano in a field

The experts from the University of Belfast discovered heavily adulterated oregano samples back in 2015, which they say have improved since. Pictured, raw green Oregano in a field

The 2020 survey found only one instance of Oregano adulteration – a five-fold drop.   

The results of this latest study have been shared for potential follow-up with the Food Industry Intelligence Network, the National Food Crime Unit and the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit. 

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All of these organisations were established as a direct result of the 2014 Elliott Report, an independent review led by Professor Elliott into the integrity of the UK food industry after the horse meat crisis.

WHAT WAS THE 2013 HORSEMEAT SCANDAL?

A scandal erupted in January 2013 after horse DNA was found in several beef products in Britain and Ireland.

Frozen food brand Findus was found to be selling a beef lasagna in several European countries, including the UK, which contained 60 per cent to 100 per cent horse meat.

A number of other companies selling ready-made foods were forced to admit that they had unknowingly sold beef products containing horse meat.

Scandal: Four men have been charged with 'organised fraud', over the 2013 meat scandal, when horse DNA was found in beef products across Europe, including Findus' beef lasagna

Frozen food brand Findus was found to be selling a beef lasagna in several European countries, including the UK, which contained 60 per cent to 100 per cent horse meat 

As a result, supermarkets across the continent pulled millions of suspect food products like canned goulash and lasagna from their shelves. 

The horse meat was reported to have originated from a slaughterhouse in Romania, which produced meat for a Dutch company.

Two Frenchmen and two Dutchmen were charged in March 2018 with ‘organised fraud’ after a three-year inquiry into the scandal.





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