It’s Time For Real Talk About Fake Food

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but many of the foods that are being sold to you may not be what they seem. Adulteration, fraud, and legal loopholes have led to a dire state of affairs for some of our favorite foods. Kobe beef burgers don’t actually exist. Cellulose has been found in our parmesan. That sushi you had the other night might not have been the fish you were promised.

So what? It was good, cheap, and filling. What’s the big deal whether or not the Chianti came from Italy or Connecticut, or if the white tuna was actually escolar?

Well, a bottle of Chianti from Chianti, Italy is made under strict adherence to legal standards created by the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) — meaning that Chianti literally cannot be made in the U.S. since there is no region called Chianti in the U.S. — and that’s before you even get into conversations about quality. As for that escolar, it’s so well known to cause anal leakage that it’s called the Ex-Lax fish in the industry.

Luckily there’s someone on our side to wade through the very murky waters of food fraud. Larry Olmsted’s new book Real Food/ Fake Food offers tools for helping you identify if and when you’re being duped, swindled, or potentially sickened. We sat down with Olmsted to shine a light on some nefarious fake foods and their delectable real food counterparts.

You mentioned you got very angry writing this book. How have you coped with your anger?

(Laughing) Well, I mean, it’s really easy focus on the negative — like, 94% of the time you order red snapper, you’re not getting it. Then I came to the realization that the only reason that there are fake foods is because there are such good real foods. So I’ve increasingly channeled my desire into educating people about how good these real foods are. It’s more about loving food and embracing food.

Tell us a bit about how you got into the world of real and fake food, and what led you to write the book?

About a dozen years ago, I went to Japan and I got to try Kobe Beef, which is rare even in Japan. It’s sort of the Rolls Royce of red meat. So I came back to the U.S. and, in the course of my work, I’d occasionally go to a fancy restaurant and see Kobe Beef on the menu. And I tried it a couple times and it never tasted or looked anything like it had in Japan, which kinda set me wondering.

So I did a little research and found that at the time the USA had completely banned the importation of all Japanese beef. All these restaurants in the U.S. that had Kobe Beef on the menu were basically lying to the customers to get more money out of them. I just started to think Kobe Beef is kind of one-percenter food, it doesn’t effect many people. That coupled with a visit to Parma, Italy, where I went to see how Parmesan cheese and prosciutto are made. I saw the artisan quality of those products and how pure they are. The people making them told me, you don’t get this in the States, or you get a bad version in the States. I’d ask why? And they’d explain how they’re not protected by law so you can do anything. This sort of all gelled between Parma and my Kobe Beef experience.

I spend a lot of time in Bologna. The food of Emilia-Romagna is outstanding.

In Bologna there’s a perfect example. In the U.S. bologna is considered a really crappy, processed food that you eat only if you can’t afford roast beef or turkey on your sandwich. As opposed to the actual sausage that is a D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) product made in a very certain way in Italy. So it’s a perfect example of really dumbing down a good food.

In your introduction, you mention that there is a vast umbrella of fake foods — from the criminal to the immoral to the embraced, or government supported. Can you give us an example from each of those facets?

The criminal end’s where you’re really being sold more than a counterfeit, but a substitute. In seafood there’s something called species substitution. That’s when you order a particular kind of fish and you get a completely different species that’s less expensive and lower quality. So you might order Red Snapper, which is one of the highest priced fish you can buy, and be given farm-raised Tilapia. Or order lobster ravioli or lobster bisque that has no lobster in it at all.

Another example would be adulterated products. Honey is a big one. It’s number three right now on the list of most adulterated products in the world. It’s often cut with high-fructose corn syrup or beet sugar or cane sugar or any sugar because they’re all cheaper than honey. So when you buy a product named honey as a single ingredient product and it’s only supposed to contain honey, and it’s been adulterated, that’s criminal fraud.

The immoral or the grey area to me would be the Kobe Beef, the parmesan, the U.S. made champagne, Burgundy, and Chianti — all of which are legal in the U.S. They’re clearly trading on the name and reputation of the real product. It’s legal to call your crappy industrial beef Kobe Beef in this country. But you’re still defrauding consumers.

Then the government complicity would also be in terms of geographically concerned products. Your DOP/IGP/DOC products where the U.S. government has taken sort of a hard line on refusing to acknowledge foreign geographic trademarks. The reason this bothers me so much on top of adversely affecting American consumers and artisans and producers, we’re so sensitive when it comes to protecting our intellectual property and trademarks when it comes to software, music, and entertainment, but don’t seem to care when it comes to food.

Why do you suppose that is?

It’s harder for Americans because we’ve been disconnected from our food. We go to the supermarket and buy it. We don’t fish it or grow it. That makes it hard to know it. We’re also a country obsessed with scientific progress. But then that carried over to ‘why can’t we just make champagne in a lab in New Jersey?’ So there’s an old, traditional way that sort of flies in the face of American can-do ingenuity.

Is it that the government just doesn’t give a damn?

All of these products were defined and protected in their home place and other countries before the United States existed. So it’s not a new phenomena. I think there’s a little bit of a conflict if, say, Italian immigrants came over and planted vineyard, which a lot of them did, and they wanted to sort of recreate the taste of the old country and call it Chianti. I can understand how that comes about and it’s confusing.

Probably the most famous example in the U.S. with wine is Gallo Hearty Burgundy, which has been made here for 50 years by Italian immigrants though Italy and Burgundy have nothing to do with each other. And this wine has nothing to do with Burgundy. I think they used it because Burgundy is just a high value name.

Name recognition makes sense. That must be changing as globalization takes hold and the world of trade shrinks.

When I do signings, I get a lot of people who are of Italian or Greek descent and I’m surprised by how many of them already know this problem. I get people of Greek descent say, “Oh, yeah, I get my relatives to send over olive oil from Greece. I won’t buy the olive oil here!” There’s a little more of an embrace of this concept with people who are familiar with places that they come from.

I wanna just clarify something. I have nothing against people trying to replicate a great taste from somewhere else. I’m from New York originally and I see New York style pizza all over the country. Sometimes I want to have a slice of NY style pizza. It’s not like it’s morally bad to have it Kansas City. But you’re in Kansas City and they call it New York style pizza, which immediately tells you you’re not in New York. So when I see Kobe style beef on a menu, it doesn’t make me extremely happy, but it doesn’t make me upset because it’s telling you this is not Kobe beef, it’s an imitation of Kobe beef. And that’s fine with me.

Who do you think is doing the imitation game well?

Wine’s the perfect example. Napa Valley makes some of the best Cabernet in the world, and a lot of it is done in the style of Bordeaux. But they don’t call it Bordeaux. So it’s not confusing. And that’s the issue. It’s not that you can’t not make things that taste similar all over the world, but you shouldn’t use a name, especially when almost all of these names have a precise legal definition — that’s the big thing.

You know what goes well with wine? Cheese! Let’s talk Parmesan.

Not only does Parmigiano-Reggiano taste better than those fake versions of Parmesan cheese, but when you buy it, you know by law you’re getting three ingredients: milk, salt, and rennet. You know that the milk is super pure because the cows aren’t allowed to be given any drugs and the wild feed that they eat is not allowed to be fertilized or given pesticides. Then when you buy Parmesan cheese in the U.S., it can be made with drug-addled milk and have 15 ingredients. There’s really no definition at all. So that’s why if you want to call something Italian Hard Grating cheese, that’s fine. That’s a more accurate definition.

It reminds me of the packages of American Style cheese or cheese product…

And you know one of the reasons I don’t really talk a lot about fast food in my book, which is a really trendy thing to knock in the this country, to me when you go to buy fast food, you’re sort of getting what you expect. If you go to a drive thru and you pay $1.99 for a hamburger, you get what’s advertised. It doesn’t say 100% beef. It doesn’t say Angus. It doesn’t say Kobe. It just says hamburger. It doesn’t even suggest that it’s all beef. And it’s $1.99. My whole definition of fake food is when you think you’re buying one thing and you’re getting another.

One thing I would like to talk about more in depth is olive oil. That’s a huge product in the United States that seems to have a lot of fraud around it.

High quality extra virgin olive oil is sort of a miracle food. It’s got all kinds of health benefits and almost seems like every time they do a study they find more benefits. Obviously it’s the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. If you look at countries that consume large amounts of olive oil, they’re much healthier. So I don’t want people to be scared of olive oil. I want them to use more of it. Once you’ve tasted really good olive oil, you won’t settle anymore.

Here’s the issue. So you have these different standards — extra virgin being the highest. I kinda compare it to gasoline at the pump. You have standard, premium, and ultra-premium grades of gasoline that cost more and perform better as you go up.

The virgin category means that it can only be extracted from olives via mechanical means such as crushing or centrifuge with nothing else added. Once you refine it in anyway, which is distill it or chemically alter it, it can’t be virgin olive oil anymore. It’s just olive oil, which is used in things like like Light Olive Oil and olive oil blends.

So, within virgin olive oil, you have three grades: lampante, virgin, and extra virgin. Extra virgin is supposed to represent the best of the best. It’s like the grand cru. One expert in Spain, which is the largest producer, told me that maybe 8-10% of European olive oil should qualify as extra virgin. However, it’s virtually impossible to buy olive oil in the U.S. that’s not labeled extra virgin. That’s like if you went to the gas station and there was only ultra-premium.

Right. So it’s largely a lack of responsible labeling in the U.S. What is happening with the olive oil that’s being cut with lesser oils these days?

It could be soy bean oil, or canola oil depending on what’s selling cheaply because you mix it in and it’s really hard to tell. So, it’s certainly has been adulterated with cheaper oils in the past. There are numerous cases of this. UC-Davis found that 69 percent of the olive oil labeled extra virgin failed to meet the standards. Consumer Reports estimated at least 50 percent. 60 Minutes recently estimated the number closer to 80 percent. Regardless of which of those numbers you take, it includes every form of failure of the standard and some of it is due to adulteration, cutting it with other oils. But a lot of times it’s just that it wasn’t grade quality. It hasn’t been adulterated at all. It just wasn’t good enough.

How does the average American consumer avoid this? How do you recognize something that’s real in the U.S.? Or is it really just a roll of the dice?

With Red Snapper, I can tell you if you see Red Snapper advertised for $9.99 a pound, it is never going to be Red Snapper. But even then, paying above a certain amount still doesn’t guarantee you it’s still going to be real. You can pay $25 a pound and still get ripped off. Olive Oil on the other hand is up and down. There are expensive olive oils that are not good. And cheaper olive oils that are good. As a ballpark guess, I doubt you’d get a high quality olive oil for under $10 a bottle. You need to taste it ideally. Supermarkets of course aren’t going to let you do this. But most specialty shops always have a bottle open for you to sample.

We had a tasting and one of the best was a Tunisian bottle for $19. Now you’re not going to find that outside of specialty shops. But it’s worth it because the average American consumes about one bottle of olive oil a year. If you compare that to a $7 bottle, sure, that’s a $12 difference. But over a year, that’s only a dollar a month, or three cents a day to have better olive oil.

You mention in your book that 48 million Americans are unknowingly sickened by what they eat every year. Do you think it’s more that people just aren’t aware of something that’s been adulterated, or is more to do with the low quality of the product?

Experts attribute a lot of the 48 million undiagnosed illnesses to food fraud. It’s hard to say how much is allergy and how much is something else. For sure, though, peanut oil is slipping into olive oil, which is a much more common allergy today than what it used to be. And certainly, in a product you’re expecting to be 100% made from olives you’d expect not to find peanut or soy, you’d expect it to be a safe choice for you. But basically, if you just buy good olive oil, it’s never going to be a problem.

What fake products are most likely to make someone sick?

This problem is probably worst in seafood. There are a lot of types of seafood that are known to make people sick that are being used. The number one example is Escolar which is used in sushi. It’s a fish that is known for causing stomach distress. It’s called an ex-lax fish in the trade. A lot of Americans are eating that without knowing it. Other fish that are high in mercury that aren’t going to make you sick right now, but might make you sick 20 years from now.

Well, that’s put me off cheap sushi. That reminds me of lobster rolls and how ubiquitous they’ve become at a low price point. Logically you can’t think that lobster that costs upwards of 10-20 bucks a pound will yield a over-stuffed sandwich for $4.99. So what’s replacing the lobster?

The lobster one is a very broad spectrum. The first problem is the legal problem. For reasons that are kinda hard to rationally grasp the FDA decided to allow langostino to be used legally as lobster. So a lot of these cheap fast food lobster rolls, lobster quesadillas, lobster tacos can use langostino, which is closely related to the hermit crab, as lobster. And that’s not illegal. They would say the lobster roll contains lobster because legally they can call langostino lobster. I would say it contains no lobster because the langostino is not a lobster.

Is it a matter of cutting it in with some lobster to save money, or just a straight up replacement?

When Inside Edition did their tests, they found a lobster ravioli that didn’t even have any seafood at all in it! Not even bad seafood! I think that’s a hard talent to pull off to serve somebody lobster with no seafood in it. But they did it!

I’m at a loss for words. So how do we know if we’re being scammed out of real lobster, or any seafood for that matter?

Yesterday I saw an ad for McDonald’s Lobster Rolls, which is usually a seasonal thing in the summer. The sign said 100% North Atlantic Lobster. I thought, “That’s interesting. They’re obviously trying to differentiate it from these lower quality fast food rolls.” I walked by Quiznos in the airport and I saw a sign stating that their Summer Lobster and Seafood Salad is back. And by saying ‘and seafood’ salad, that basically means anything could be in there. That’s a nicely vague way of doing it. It’s a good red flag that you don’t know what you’re getting.

Is the ultimate goal to change what seems to be a very broken system for transparency in our food?

I’m hoping that we can enact some change. I think the more we pile on the FDA with complaints, the more likely they are to actually do something. It’s sort of what happened with organic. I see change coming. And there are a lot more advocates for that change already. There’s a good chance that seafood will be massively cleaned up over the next couple years. There are so many non-profits now that focus on getting kids to eat farm fresh vegetables.

Have there been any unexpected outcomes from your book so far?

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who’ve read the book who say, “You really made me want to go to Parma now!” And that’s really the goal, not to make you want to go to Parma, it’d be great if you did, but to make you long to try some of these foods.

What can we do?

I’m not here to pass judgement on people’s diets. I eat a lot of meat. If you want to be vegan, great. But if you want to eat grass fed, antibiotic free beef, you should be able to buy that. My position is that when you’ve made a choice to eat something, you should be able to buy that product correctly labeled. I believe that our over-consumption of chemicals, artificial flavors, preservatives is making us less healthy. If you look at countries that are healthy, they’re not all on the Mediterranean diet. Countries that eat much more red meat than us have better health. But they’re all eating more pure and wholesome foods. I’m down on the aggressively processed foods.

What would be your one key piece of advice for the consumer to identify real food and fake food?

I’ll give you two. One, try to buy food in its wholest form. Meaning when you buy a whole lobster, you cannot be fooled. Same for coffee beans versus ground, fruit versus juice. You know what you’re getting when you can see the whole thing. Second, avoid heavily processed foods. Pre-made foods hide a lot of things. You’ll see a long ingredients list on that sort of food. Even that will be misleading because one of the ingredients on a frozen pizza might be pepperoni. But then the pepperoni itself probably has 20 other ingredients that you’re not seeing. You don’t have to make everything from scratch. But the more steps the in process you can control the better off you’ll be.

Larry Olmsted’s book Real Food Fake Food is available and massively enlightening for your diet and health.