In his excellent book, Real Food/Fake Food, my friend Larry Olmsted, a columnist for USA Today and Forbes, as well as an instructor in nonfiction at Dartmouth, tells a sordid tale of fraud, mislabeling, illegal ingredients, imposters, and government malfeasance in our food supply. Olmsted is a thorough researcher and he documents his claims. I can vouch for the book’s accuracy.
Among the tales he tells, a significant percentage of fish that we buy is not what is on the label. It is extremely easy to sell filets of cheap fish as expensive fish. According to Olmsted, it is highly unlikely that any red snapper you have purchased in a grocery or restaurant is really red snapper. That’s because red snapper is in great demand, in short supply, and expensive, plus most people can’t tell the difference, especially with a sauce. Ditto for Florida grouper. “Several recent studies put the chances of your getting the white tuna you ordered in the typical New York sushi restaurant at zero—as in never.”
He also claims that most shrimp we buy comes from aquafarms in Asia where there is practically no regulation and slave labor is rampant. Ken Peterson, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “the world’s gold standard of expertise in seafood sustainability, production, and fisheries” told Olmsted “for a variety of reasons, imported shrimp may be one of the worst food buying decisions consumers can make.” Olmsted tells us to demand shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico.
Since his book came out in 2017 a study published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety in 2022 said that 53% of imported seafood had illegal or unauthorized veterinary residues, especially seafood from Vietnam, China, and India, where antibiotics are employed for both prophylactic and therapeutic use. Shrimp was the species implicated the most followed by catfish and tilapia.
Olmsted explains that pretty much all the “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” in your grocery store is as virginal as a Penthouse centerfold and that most of us have never tasted authentic EVOO. And if the bottle says “Product of Italy” misleading laws say the olives can be grown anywhere, pressed anywhere, shipped in a tank, and merely squirted into the bottle in Italy.
And let’s not get into “truffle oil.” The vast majority is really “truffle flavored oil” and the flavor comes from chemicals like 2,4-dithiapentane, not truffles.
Then there’s balsamic vinegar. True “Aceto Tradizionale Balsamico” is rare and more than $100 for a 100 ml/3.4-ounce bottle and it never has an age or vintage date on the label. It is made by an expensive time consuming ancient process of blending vinegar of many vintages averaging at least 12 years old. In my detailed article on balsamic, I describe it as “dense and viscous, velvety, almost like a syrup when poured. It is shiny mahogany in the middle and sparkling amber along the edges. The perfume is penetrating but, even though it averages about 5% acidity by weight, does not attack your sinuses and make you pull back like normal vinegar, and it is layered with floral and dried fruit essences. In the mouth, it is velvety, slick, almost oily, like a liqueur, harmoniously sweet and tart at the same time, with a singular flavor of caramel, concentrated raisins, dried figs, dates, and cherries. When you swallow, it lasts longer than sex.”
Virtually all the cheap “Balsamic Vinegar di Modena” in your grocery is made in a hurry from young wine vinegar, cooked grape juice to sweeten it, and caramel color. I describe it in my article as “watery and insipid tastes like crudely made fresh wine vinegar and smells like apple cider, banana, geraniums, and even solvent. These are not desirable characteristics. And the prices can get up to $50 per bottle. There’s no sure way to tell from the bottle what you are getting, and that makes it hard to use in recipes.” In my books, we use it occasionally and I refer to it as salad balsamic.
Olmsted rightly goes off on our government’s disregard for place names of other countries such as Kobe beef, Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, and Gruyere Cheese. He complains that the FDA has decided these place names are generic. How would we react if Italy was to market local lobsters as Maine lobsters, or sell Napa Cabernet, Idaho potatoes, or Florida oranges?
At the time of this writing, there are very few restaurants in the US selling authentic beef from Kobe in Japan. All the rest is fake. Says Olmsted “Kobe is a completely unregulated term, and in any case, no agency—not the USDA, the FDA, or any other—regulates restaurant menu claims. Any restaurant in this country can, at any time, claim that any piece of meat it serves is Kobe beef, Kobe chicken, Kobe pork, Kobe goat, or even Kobe lobster (I’ve seen chicken and pork) without breaking any specific law, which as a consumer, I find sort of scary. When it comes to outright menu lies, Kobe beef is hardly alone: Restaurants can claim beef is dry-aged twenty-eight days, natural, cruelty-free, organic, and grass-fed — all higher quality traits associated with lofty price tags—without any of it being true.”
Lax US laws allow wineries in New York to name their sparkling wines Champagne even though they contain none of the grapes used in the Champagne district, nor are they made by the painstaking expensive “methode champenois.” At least New York “Champagne” has bubbles. Gallo Hearty Burgundy tastes as close to the real thing as chocolate milk does. He gets especially irate about what he and I agree is the king of cheeses, true Parmigiano-Reggiano from Parma in Italy, also made by a painstaking regulated regimen that bears zero resemblance to parmesan cheese made in the US and sold in a green toilet paper tube. To make matters worse, it has recently been discovered that some American “parmesan” is adulterated with sawdust.
Then there is the complicated issue of honey. Olmsted claims that much of what we buy is corn syrup or fructose syrup blended with honey. So much of the honey from China is contaminated with pesticides and antibiotics that it is banned from importation into the US. So they ship it to other countries where the labeling is laundered and then it enters the US. You can’t tell where your honey comes from because of wimpy laws and zero enforcement. According to the Federal Register “Honey does not require official inspection in order to carry official USDA grade marks and… there are no existing programs that require the official inspection and certification of honey.” The organic label on honey is bogus because you can’t stop bees from wandering into fields that have been sprayed with insecticide. Even if grocery store honey is from bees, much of it has been ultrafiltered, removing pollen and nutrients so it is clearer and won’t crystalize.
Then there is coffee. Think you’ve had real Kona coffee, even on vacation in Hawaii? Probably not. The financial incentive to sell any old beans labeled Kona is too great to resist. He quotes Chemistry World: “Increasingly, ground coffee is being mixed with cheaper ingredients such as maize, soybeans, sugar, and acai seeds.” The same problem exists for Darjeeling and other high-end teas.
When it comes to fruit juices, just ignore the front label name and pretty pictures. Look at the back label. “Most [of the] juice in pretty much any kind of juice (except orange) you buy is apple, even if it’s labeled blueberry or cranberry. Apple juice is the cheapest, and manufacturers aren’t required to list percentages on the label… The vast majority of apple juice sold in the United States is from Chinese-made concentrate, which as I have mentioned has repeatedly been found to contain banned pesticides and other chemicals.”
Olmsted wraps up by explaining the differences between the USDA and the FDA. The USDA was established to promote American agriculture, not to protect the consumer. So they do the sort of things that PR agents do to puff up their clients. The FDA was given the task of protecting the consumer and they are doing a lousy job of it. Olmsted says “The FDA lets manufacturers hide everything from lice killer to antifreeze in many of our most beloved foods and gives the same companies that invent new food additives the power to decide whether they are ‘safe.’”
In the 1980s the agency set about trying to define the label term “natural” now in use on practically every label on the shelves. They held hearings, and had an open period for written comments. They still haven’t finished the job. Olmsted says “A scathing GAO [Government Accountability Office] investigation found that less than 10 percent of the citizen’s petitions filed in the past twelve years have been responded to, despite a policy requiring the FDA to do so within 180 days.” Consumers think the word “natural” is meaningful when it is in fact meaningless.
So what are we, the suckers, to do? Start by reading Olmsted’s book. Stop buying the cheapest products available if you can afford to upgrade. Buy from specialists whose reputation rests on the quality and from the source whenever possible. Buy whole fish, not filets. Buy your honey from local beekeepers at the farmer’s market. Read the back labels. And turn your BS meters on high.
Olmsted concludes his book by saying “When you choose to eat Real Food, your immediate benefit is that it tastes good. Your long-term benefit is that it is almost always healthier. In many cases, it is also more sustainable, healthier for the environment, and supports people whose work, methods, and entire communities make the world a better place.”
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Meathead, BBQ Hall of Famer - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.