Faking it: peppercorns

by Nicola Temple | January 21, 2016

As the media inquiries start to come in regarding the launch of our book next month, the question of developing some demonstrations of food fraud has come up. I love the idea and am a huge fan of visuals myself. But it means that my kitchen has become some sort of odd laboratory. Last night I spent my evening drying the seeds from different papaya varieties to see which would make the best fake peppercorns.

Papaya seeds are a common adulterant of peppercorns. They are cheap and readily available and even just adding 10% to a batch of peppercorns will improve profit margins substantially. Grind those suckers up and the possibility of detecting the fakes goes down significantly meaning fraudsters can increase the fake:real ratio even more.

My first batch, I may have cooked a little too long. The seeds came out quite dry and quite a bit smaller. Too small, in fact, to be confused with peppercorns. The second papaya I used started with much rounder and larger seeds and so I was careful not to over-dry them. Both seeds had their pros and cons.

In the image below you will see real peppercorns in the middle. On the left is the first batch, the seeds are quite a bit smaller and paler (likely due to over-drying). I was also a little less careful in pulling away the papaya pulp on the first batch so there are a few tell-tale strands of papaya attached. On the right is my second batch. The seed is bigger and darker, but the rugosity definitely differentiates it from the real thing.

3 types

In the centre are real peppercorns and on the left and right are two batches of dried papaya seeds – a frequent adulterant of peppercorn.

So, at this point I was rather sceptical. How could people be fooled by these fake peppercorns when they were easily differentiated with the naked eye. And then I did this:

Mixed

Real peppercorns mixed with dried papaya seeds.

When mixed together, it became far more difficult to detect fakes and I knew they were there! So, what about an unsuspecting consumer? Little chance!

Take it one step further and grind the pepper and it becomes virtually impossible.

Ground

On the left is pure peppercorns ground. On the right is peppercorns ground with 50% papaya seeds.

I’m hoping this will make a nice little demonstration of one of the common food scams out there!

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