TIME public health

People Who Sext Are More Likely to Text While Driving

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'Technological deviance' may be the reason why

More than a quarter of American adults admit to texting while driving, but not everyone is equally likely to engage in the dangerous practice, finds a new study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. People who text and drive are more likely to be white than nonwhite, men than women and sexters than the sext-abstinent.

“In modern social life, we are tethered to our devices,” says study author Steven Seiler, assistant professor of sociology at Tennessee Tech University. “When we’re driving, we’re simply taking the norms that we have in other areas of life.”

The study evaluated survey data from more than 2,200 American adults and found that more than 27% of drivers admitted to texting while driving. The practice seemed to be fueled by a sense of constant connection to others. What the authors call “technological deviance,” a disregard for social norms around technology, may help explain why sexting was an associated behavior.

Read More: How Your Cell Phone Distracts You Even When You’re Not Using It

Even though a majority of states ban texting while driving, Seiler says he is skeptical that such laws are the most effective way to stop the practice. New Jersey, a state that keeps extensive records on texting-while-driving enforcement, enacted strict laws to ban the practice more than five years ago, but hasn’t seen a decline since, Seiler says.

“When there’s laws prohibiting mobile phones, rather than keeping the mobile phones near their face, they’ll keep it in their lap,” he says. “The change has to occur on a cultural level, not simply stricter laws.”

Much like state laws, simple restrictions aren’t likely to change culture. Students who attend a school that bans mobile phones from the classroom are more likely to engage in texting while driving, Seiler says he found in an forthcoming study. “They’re catching up on that time lost,” he says. “This goes back to how integrated cell phones are with our relationships.”

To truly eradicate the practice, Seiler says the dangers of texting while driving need to be ingrained in a child early in their socialization. Parents need to monitor their children’s texting, and texting while driving should have consequences, he says.

Traffic safety campaigns should try to spread the message in every way possible, much like the seatbelt campaign of the 1990s, he says. In the United States in 2012, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving accidents, which include talking on the phone and texting while driving.

Read more: Why People Text And Drive Even When They Know It’s Dangerous

TIME HIV/AIDS

Scientists Find a Way to Block HIV from Infecting Healthy Cells

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Getty Images HIV viruses infecting a human immune cell

Researchers overcome a major hurdle in developing the ultimate protection against HIV

Reporting in the journal Nature, scientists describe a new way to potentially block HIV from infiltrating healthy cells. Such interference is key to protecting people from HIV infection, but most efforts so far haven’t been successful.

This time, however, may be different. Michael Farzan, professor of infectious diseases at Scripps Research Institute, and his team used a gene therapy technique to introduce a specific HIV disruptor that acted like gum on HIV’s keys. Once stuck on the virus’s surface, the peptide complex prevents HIV from slipping into the molecular locks on healthy cells. Because the gum isn’t picky about which HIV strain it sticks to—as long as it’s HIV—the strategy works against all of the strains Farzan’s group tested in the lab, including both HIV-1 and HIV-2 versions that transmit among people, as well as simian versions that infect monkeys. In lab dishes containing the virus and human and animal cells, the disruptor managed to neutralize 100% of the virus, meaning it protected the cells from getting infected at all.

MORE: The End of AIDS

The strategy is based on what HIV experts know about how the virus infects healthy cells. HIV looks for a protein, or receptor on immune cells called CD4, which serves as the lock, and uses a specially designed portion of its own viral coat made up of three proteins as the key. Once HIV finds its target and the match is made, the virus changes its shape to better slip inside the healthy cell, where it takes over the cell’s machinery and churns out more copies of itself. Farzan’s gum, called eCD4-Ig, not only seeks out these parts of the key and renders them useless, but by glomming onto the key, also causes the virus to morph prematurely in search of its lock. Once in lock-finding mode, the virus can’t return to its previous state and therefore is no longer infectious.

The encouraging results suggest that eCD4-Ig could provide long-term protection against HIV infection, like a vaccine; in four monkeys treated with gene therapy to receive eCD4-Ig, none became infected with HIV even after several attempts to infect them with the virus. The protection also seems to be long-lasting. So far, the treated monkeys have survived more than a year despite being exposed to HIV, while untreated control monkeys have died after getting infected.

MORE: This Contraceptive Is Linked to a Higher Risk of HIV

The strategy, while promising, is still many steps away from being tested in people. Farzan used a cold virus to introduce the eCD4-Ig complex directly into the muscle of the animals, and it’s not clear whether this will be best strategy for people. Previous gene therapy methods have led to safety issues, and concerns have been raised about controlling where and how much of the introduced material gets deposited in the body. It may also be possible to give the peptide as an injection every few years to maintain its anti-HIV effect.

MORE: HIV Treatment Works, Says CDC

Farzan anticipates that if proven safe, the strategy could help both infected patients keep levels of HIV down, as well as protect uninfected, high-risk individuals from getting infected. But many more tests will need to be done before we might see those results. Four monkeys can provide valuable information, but can’t answer questions about safety and efficacy with any confidence. “Things change when we get to humans and when we get to larger numbers,” he says. “But the data in monkeys are as encouraging as one could hope.”

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Exercise May Prevent Depression—Not Just Alleviate It

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Women who keep exercising into midlife can prevent depression, a new study suggests

Getting a decent amount of exercise may be one way to prevent depression symptoms, according to a new study.

Prior research has shown that exercise is a non-invasive way to curb depression, but fewer studies have looked at whether exercising can actually prevent the emergence of depressive symptoms. In a new study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers showed that physical activity may give women an extra edge in warding off depression that can sometimes come with aging and worsening health.

The researchers looked 10 years’ worth of data from 2,891 women between ages 42 and 52, who filled out questionnaires about their depressive symptoms and levels of physical activity. They found that the women who were meeting public health recommendations for physical activity—150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise—reported fewer depressive symptoms. The more physical activity the women said they did, the less likely they were to have signs of depression.

“Given the high prevalence of depression in the United States, particularly for women, exercise is still not considered a first-line treatment option, even though exercise can be of low cost and low risk, can be sustained indefinitely, and has additional benefits for multiple aspects of physical health and physical function,” the authors write in the study. “Our findings suggest that motivating midlife women to maintain at least some level of moderate-intensity physical activity may be protective against depressive symptoms, with some activity better than inactivity.”

TIME Heart Disease

Why Your Heart Disease Risk Might Be Lower Than You Think

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Of the five popular tools that doctors rely on to predict whether you’re headed for heart trouble, four of them have a pretty major flaw

For decades, doctors have relied on the undisputed champion of heart disease risk assessment: the Framingham Risk Score. It emerged from a massive study of heart disease risk factors in more than 5,000 men and women and pointed out advanced age, being male, smoking, having diabetes, high total cholesterol, low levels of good cholesterol and high blood pressure. Scoring higher on these factors meant you had a greater chance of developing heart problems in the next 10 years, and most successive models included some version of these core culprits.

Now, scientists led by Dr. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Ciccarone Center for Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins Medicine, have published a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that finds that those risk calculators—four of which doctors use regularly—tend to overestimate the risk of heart attack in patients.

MORE: New Guidelines for Cholesterol Treatments Represent “Huge Change”

“It’s not that scientists made mistakes when coming up with the [calculators],” says Blaha, “They did the best job they could with the data they had. But there may be inherent problems in using historical data to predict things now.”

The diet and lifestyle of Americans have changed considerably since the Framingham days, when heart attacks occurred more frequently in younger people and more often in men than women. Americans on average now eat more trans fat and salt and have lower exposure to secondhand smoke, which can all affect heart disease rates.

MORE: Cholesterol Whiplash: What to Make of the New Heart-Risk Calculator

But even the most recent guidelines for predicting heart disease risk, released in 2013 by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, relied on the Framingham Risk factors. In the current analysis, these guidelines overestimated heart attack risk by 86% in men and 67% in women when Blaha and his team compared the predicted risk to actual rates of heart events in a group of more than 4,000 people aged 50 to 74 years, who were followed up for an average of 10 years. The other models overshot the risk by anywhere from 37% to 154% for men, and from 8% to 67% for women.

That’s a lot of extra heart disease that, under current guidelines, doctors may start treating with blood pressure medications, insulin and cholesterol-lowering drugs. All of those come with potential side effects and complications. In fact, the study found that statins to keep cholesterol in check were least effective among those with the lowest risk of having future heart events, meaning the benefits may not outweigh the risks for many.

MORE: Single Gene Responsible for Group of Heart Disease Risk Factors

“We’re getting close to the idea of re-thinking risk,” says Blaha. Instead of relying on decades-old data that draws conclusions and recommendations on a population level, ideally everyone’s risk should be more individualized and based on his own particular history. The Framingham model, for example, includes data collected from a single measurement of blood pressure and cholesterol, and a yes-or-no answer on whether the patient smokes. But someone who has smoked for years and just quit is physiologically different from someone who never lit up at all, just as having blood pressure that’s under control thanks to medication is not the same as never having hypertension to begin with. The most accurate way to predict someone’s risk of having a heart attack is to survey his blood pressure and cholesterol readings over his lifetime, or at least for many years. That may soon be possible with electronic health records and the popularity of medical monitoring bracelets. But until then, any model that relies on population-based data like Framingham may suffer from overestimating someone’s heart danger, Blaha says.

MORE: Eating Fruit Cuts Heart Disease Risk by 40%

“These data point squarely to the idea that we need to be rethinking risk prediction,” he says. That may require not just combing through more data per patient, but also folding in other factors that may be more sensitive to the health of a person’s heart. Imaging techniques, including coronary calcium scores that measure the amount of calcium—a foundation for the plaques that eventually rupture to cause heart attacks—may provide more valuable and accurate information on a person’s risk, for example.

In the meantime, Blaha isn’t advocating for the elimination of current risk predictors or guidelines that help doctors decide when a patient’s risk warrants treatment with a drug. “The guidelines are still useful, but patients and doctors have to understand the caveats and limitations to them,” he says. Whatever score a patient receives from these calculators, that number should be the starting point of a discussion between doctor and patient about that patient’s particular risk factors—including his family history, whether and how much he smoked, and how much exercise he gets on a regular basis. “Patients need to demand, or ask their doctors to go beyond the number and say, ‘Do you really think I need to starting taking medicine?’ or ‘How much risk do I really have of having a heart attack?’” That kind of conversation is far more valuable than a single-risk calculator will ever be.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

How to Eat All the Fish You Want, Minus the Mercury Danger

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Mix up your fish food

Fish: It’s one of the most confusing topics among health-conscious eaters. On one hand, it’s a great source of protein and healthy fat, and eating it has been linked to lower rates of several illnesses, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Then again, some types are full of mercury or other pollutants. It seems like one day we’re told to eat less fish, and the next, to eat more.

And in the last few weeks, the news gave us two more reasons to think twice about eating it at all: first, a study hinted at a link between mercury and autoimmune disorders in women. And before that, another report found that mercury contamination of yellowfin tuna (also known as ahi) is growing far faster than previously thought. So, what are we supposed to do?

Read more: 20 Things You Should Throw Away for Better Health

Keep it on the menu, but do it strategically. In general: “The rule of thumb for seafood is to mix it up. Eat it 2 to 3 times per week, but don’t eat the same type more than 2 to 3 times per month,” explains Timothy Harlan, MD, an internist and editor of Dr. Gourmet.

“With the wide variety of choices you could eat a different type of seafood—shrimp, crab, salmon, scallops, cod, trout, mussels, catfish, tuna, halibut—and not have to repeat the same seafood choice twice in a month.”

This is a helpful strategy because different types of ocean fare contain varying amounts of mercury. So while halibut falls under the “moderate” mercury level category, according to the National Resources Defense Council, eating it in the same week with a low-mercury type (like wild salmon) can help you keep your exposure the the heavy metal under control.

Spacing out intake of higher-mercury fish gives your body a chance to eliminate it before it builds up to dangerous levels. It’s a good idea to save or print the NRDC list of mercury-containing fish, so you always have it on hand.

The trickiest thing about mercury is that the amount of danger depends on so many factors: not only the type of seafood and where it came from, but also what other types of seafood you’re eating and when, plus your body weight. That’s why, if you eat a lot of seafood, it’s not a bad idea to use the NRDC’s mercury calculator to plan your meals.

Read more: 14 Types of Food That Can Make You Sick

Another option is to download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app (free from iTunes or Google Play), which provides up-to-date guidance right from your smartphone. You can search for different types of seafood while you’re in the store or trying to decide what to order at a restaurant. The app will tell you what’s a “Best Choice,” “Good Alternative” or if you should “Avoid,” and it includes a special guide for sushi that decodes the Japanese names for different types of fish.

Finally, if you find all of this way too confusing, you can limit your options by eating only from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Super Green List, recommended by Health‘s contributing nutrition editor, Cynthia Sass, RD. The five choices on this list—Atlantic mackerel, certain types of salmon (freshwater coho farmed, and wild-caught from Alaska) and Pacific sardines—are guaranteed to deliver 250 milligrams of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3s without worrisome levels of mercury.

Read more: 10 Fish You Should Avoid (And Why)

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

You Asked: Should I Take Probiotics?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

From strengthening your brain to slimming your belly, you’ve likely heard the promises of probiotics. Headlines call them the future of preventive medicine and disease treatment. But for now, the key word is future.

“For those with bowel disorders or urinary tract infections, there’s little doubt probiotics can be helpful,” says Dr. Shekhar Challa, a gastroenterologist and author of Probiotics For Dummies. But for healthy adults? “Things are still open to interpretation,” Challa says.

Here’s what scientists know now: Your body houses hundreds of trillions of bacteria, many of which reside in your gastrointestinal tract. Of those gut bacteria, 90 percent appear to be system-supporting or “friendly,” Challa explains. Those are the probiotics. And the more types or “strains” of probiotic bacteria you have in your gut, the better.

Plenty of evidence shows that a diverse population of gut bacteria aids digestion and immune health, Challa says. Two bacteria strains in particular, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, seem to be supportive, he says.

One recent U.K. study found Lactobacillus may combat the type of insulin resistance that contributes to obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes. If the tight junctions between the cells in the lining of your gut break down, the gap allows “inflammation-causing agents” to get into your bloodstream and cause trouble, says the study’s author, Dr. Carl Hulston of Loughborough University. But probiotics appear to seal those junctions and prevent this “leaky gut” situation.

“It’s a little too early to advise probiotic consumption as a prevention or cure for diabetes,” Hulston says. “But our initial findings are very positive.”

Read through the scientific literature on probiotics, and you’ll run into hundreds of similar statements. Probiotic potential seems limitless. The problem is figuring out how to get the right types of bacteria to set up shop in your body.

“You can eat probiotic foods like yogurt or kefir, which I think everyone should consume on a daily basis,” Challa says. “But just because you’re ingesting a probiotic doesn’t mean it’s being incorporated into your gut.” Harsh stomach acids and other aspects of digestion can kill the bacteria before they establish residency, Challa says.

Probiotic supplements—some of which contain coatings or ingredients designed to protect their contents from your belly’s acids—may be more effective, Challa says (though it should be noted that he’s part owner of a company that produces these types of supplements.) But he’s quick to add there are still a lot of roadblocks. Your age, your gut’s current micro-organic makeup, your diet and many other factors make it hard to offer broad recommendations, he explains.

It gets even murkier when you consider research from Dr. Daniel Bolnick and colleagues at the University of Texas. They’ve shown that—at least in some animals—eating a wider variety of foods actually reduces the number of probiotic bacteria in the intestinal tract. “We looked at the effects of diet mixing on gut microbes,” Bolnick says. “And we found the more you mix, the fewer you have.”

This doesn’t mean that consuming many different types of bacteria is bad. It just raises questions, Bolnick says. “Combinations of foods can do unexpected things,” he adds.

So what’s a wannabe bacteria-booster to do? Challa says that eating probiotic foods on a daily basis, like yogurt, kefir and kombucha may be beneficial, and certainly won’t harm you. “There’s no evidence that people can overdose on probiotics,” he says. And for those with gastrointestinal issues, he strongly suggests a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacteria. (Just run it by your doctor first.)

When it comes to all the other benefits you’ve heard about, it’s too early for experts to offer firm advice. “There are just too many questions and not enough hard data,” Challa says. “The potential is there. The understanding is not.”

Read next: Is It Bad To Eat the Same Thing Every Day?

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TIME White House

White House Says Obamacare Signups in 2015 Enrollment Top 11 Million

People Rush To Enroll Before Deadline For Affordable Care Act
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Jose Ramirez, left, and Mariana Silva speak with Yosmay Valdivia, an agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors, as they discuss plans available from the Affordable Care Act in the Mall of the Americas on Dec. 15, 2014 in Miami.

"The Affordable Care Act is working," Obama says

The White House announced Tuesday that 11.4 million people across the United States signed up for health insurance or renewed their plans during the 2015 enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act.

More than 1 million people enrolled for private health care coverage under President Barack Obama’s law during the last nine days until the Feb. 15 deadline, the White House said in a statement and video posted to Facebook. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell added that the final day was the biggest open enrollment day for new consumers, this year or last.

“The Affordable Care Act is working,” Obama says in the video. “It’s working a little better than we anticipated.”

The administration’s preliminary estimate could change, the Associated Press reports, as the White House has offered those who started but didn’t finish applications before the deadline until Feb. 22 to do so. Conversely, the number could fall if any enrollees don’t pay their part of the premiums.

Watch the video here.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

5 Myths and Facts About Your Microwave

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Microwave cooking has sparked a number of myths since the “space oven’s” creation. Read up on the most common microwave myths, and which ones are legit.

Myth: Microwaving food is a danger to nutrients

Nope, you shouldn’t be overly concerned about microwaves messing with nutrients. “There is no specific harm of microwaving with regard to nutrient levels,” says David Katz, MD, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. In fact, any type of cooking can chemically change a food and its nutrient content: Vitamin C, omega-3 fats, and some bioflavanoid antioxidants are more sensitive to heat in general, Dr. Katz says. Nutrients from veggies can also leach into cooking water. Since you’re apt to use less water when cooking in a microwave, your food might even be better off.

Read more: The 20 Best Foods to Eat for Breakfast

Fact: You should be careful with plastics

Microwaving plastics is definitely a no-no because it can lead to the containers breaking down and allowing more chemicals like BPA and phthalates to leach into your food. Many companies today make BPA-free and “microwave safe” containers. However, in a 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers tested 455 plastic products, from baby bottles to food containers, and found nearly all of them still leached estrogenic chemicals, which have been linked to obesity and some forms of cancer. Even plastics marketed as BPA-free were guilty. The ubiquity of plastics makes it hard to avoid them completely. But the best advice is to avoid them when you can, and always transfer food to a glass or ceramic dish before microwaving, Dr. Katz says.

Read more: 27 Mistakes Healthy People Make

Myth: Reheating pasta can make it healthier (for now, at least)

A recent experiment on the BBC investigative health program Trust Me, I’m a Doctor sparked buzz after finding that when pasta was cooked, cooled, then reheated in a microwave, it reduced participants’ post-meal rise in blood glucose by 50%. The reason, researchers said, is that pasta that’s cooled and reheated acts like resistant starch, preventing the gut from breaking down carbs and absorbing them as sugar. But don’t get too excited. That was one study including a measly nine volunteers, so Dr. Katz says to take it with a grain of salt for now. His advice: stick with whole-grain pasta instead, which experts know is healthier. (Due to the higher fiber content, blood sugar does not spike as quickly as it does after eating refined pasta.) “For sure, whole-grain pasta has a lower glycemic effect than refined pasta, whether or not it is reheated,” he says.

Read more: 9 Everyday Sources of Radiation

Myth: Microwaves cook food all the way through

When it comes to cooking, microwaves penetrate food to a depth of 1 to 1.5 inches, according to the USDA. So heat won’t be able to reach the center of really thick pieces of food, Dr. Katz says. This is especially dangerous for poultry or red meat because you can get food poisoning from undercooked meat. You’re better off using your microwave as an assistant in your kitchen, for re-heating food you already cooked or thawing something you’re about to cook.

Read more: 20 Foods You Should Always Have in Your Kitchen

Fact: Microwaves are safe

The reason it’s called a “microwave” is because it emits microwaves, a type of electromagnetic radiation, to heat your food. It’s absolutely an old wives’ tale that microwaves are the same as cancer-causing radiation. All they do is cause the molecules in food to move and the molecular motion is what causes the heat, Dr. Katz explains. And you can’t get cancer just by standing next to a microwave oven either: The microwaves are mostly contained within the oven itself when it’s on, and any that leak out are limited to a level far below what could actually hurt you, according to the American Cancer Society.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Cancer

Taking Medication May Make It Easier to Quit Smoking

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A Pfizer-funded study suggests the anti-smoking drug Chantix could be used to slowly help smokers quit

According to the results of a new trial published in JAMA, an anti-smoking medication may make it easier for smokers who aren’t yet ready to quit to do so later on.

Nearly seven out of every 10 current U.S. adult cigarette smokers want to quit completely, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some smokers who aren’t yet ready to quit for good want to lower their consumption and increase their chances for success at kicking the habit down the line. That’s possible with the help of a drug called varenicline, which is sold under the trade name Chantix and is manufactured by Pfizer, finds the new study, which was also funded by Pfizer.

The researchers conducted a two-year trial with 1,510 cigarette smokers who weren’t willing to quit within the next month, but who were willing to try to quit within the following three months. The men and women were split into two groups: some received Chantix, and others received a placebo for 24 weeks. The goal for all the volunteers was to reduce smoking by at least 50% by week four, and then continue to ease up on the habit until a quit attempt at week 12.

The volunteers who were taking Chantix were significantly more successful at quitting by the end of the study compared to the people on the placebo, and the effect stuck at one year.

Developing smoking cessation strategies that allow smokers to quit gradually could attract many more smokers to the method, a Pfizer spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Chantix is not without side effects and controversy. Some data has suggested the drug is linked to serious psychiatric side effects and heart problems.

The authors disclose several conflicts of interest, including the fact that Chantix manufacturer Pfizer was involved in the design, data collection and analysis of the study, and many of the study authors received fees or grants from Pfizer. However, the findings highlight a new potential strategy for curbing smoking and possibly allowing more people to be successful. According to the American Cancer Society, only around 4% to 7% of people are able to quit smoking without medication or other means, and about 25% are able to quit smoking for over six months with the help of medicine.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

2,500 Tons of the Food We Eat is Fake

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Fake alcohol was the biggest offender

Do you really know what’s in your cheese?

New evidence may cast some doubt on the purity of your favorite foods. Interpol, the international criminal police organization, announced that it seized thousands of tons of fake food in a joint operation with Europol over the past two months—including seemingly benign mainstays like mozzarella, eggs, bottled mineral water, strawberries, cooking oil and dried fruit—in 47 countries.

Adulterations cut across all kinds of categories. In Italy, 31 tons of seafood were labeled as “fresh” but had actually been previously frozen, then doused with a chemical containing citric acid and hydrogen peroxide to hide that it was rotting. At an Italian cheese factory, officers found expired dairy and chemicals used to make old cheese seem fresh. They also found that mozzarella was being smoked in the back of a van with burning trash as a heat source.

Egyptian authorities seized 35 tons of fake butter and shut down an entire factory producing that was sold as tea. In Thailand, officials destroyed 85 tons of meat that had made its way into the country without health and safety testing. And in the U.S., the FDA found that illegal dietary supplements were being sent through the mail.

All of that fraudulent food was seized in markets, airports, seaports and shops between December 2014 and January 2015. The crackdown, known as Operation Opson IV, is the largest effort of the agencies to target such inappropriately or mislabeled food and ultimately removed 2,500 tons of food and 275,000 liters of tainted drinks out of the food supply, Interpol says. Last year, Operation Opson III seized about 1,200 tons of fake food in 33 countries.

Read more: Waiter, There’s Fox In My Donkey Meat: The Global Scandal of Food Fraud

The most counterfeited product of all was alcohol. In the U.K., officials ferreted out a plant distilling fraudulent brand-name vodka, made in antifreeze containers and treated to take out the chemical smell. Officials in Rwanda found a shop selling a local brew that had been poured into used brand-name bottles to pass it off as more expensive.

It isn’t new, but the practice of substituting a less expensive ingredient for a pricier one, or finding ways to dilute a product, is increasingly the subject of scrutiny. One 2014 study by Oceana found that 30% of shrimp sold in the U.S. are mislabeled, and Europe’s recent horse meat scandal has made people across the world second guess what’s on their dinner plate when they’re served beef.

“It is a problem everywhere,” says Markus Lipp, senior director for food standards at United States Pharmacopeia, a non-profit organization that develops standards for ingredients in pharmaceuticals, foods and dietary supplements and maintains a database of known instances of food fraud. (U.S. Pharmacopeia was not involved with the Interpol/Europol investigation.) “Too good to be true is actually a real thing,” Lipp says. “If I get something really, really cheap but it’s usually very expensive, it might not be the right thing.”

In countries with more effective regulatory agencies, food fraud happens less, but consumers can be smarter about their food purchases wherever they live, Lipp says. Buying the not-as-processed version of a food makes it less of a target. Whole coffee beans, for example, are more distinct in form and shape—and more difficult to adulterate—than the ground variety.

Same goes for ground brown burgers. “Everyone can tell a horse from a cow,” Lipp says. “But if it’s a patty, it gets much more difficult to tell horse meat from cow meat.”

The more intact our food, Lipp says, the more distinguishing features it has. Buying it in its natural state, or as close to that state as possible, “will aid us in helping to prevent adulteration or buying adulterated products,” he says.

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