“Food fraud, or the act of defrauding buyers of food or ingredients for economic gain… has vexed the food industry throughout history.”
— Renee Johnson, “Food Fraud and ‘Economically Motivated Adulteration’ of Food and Food Ingredients”
This summer I read a fascinating and eye-opening book, Real Food Fake Food, by Larry Olmstead. Real food is exactly what it claims to be. Some real food is obvious, like a whole Maine lobster, while other real food is harder to distinguish, like Burgundy wine. The real stuff is made in France with 100 percent pinot noir.
What is fake food? Unlike the term “fake news” which is used to obfuscate the truth, fake food is just that: a cheap counterfeit, like selling Chesapeake Bay crab cakes using less expensive crab species rather than the prized and authentic blue crab. Adulterated food is fake food. Because scallops are sold by weight it is common practice to adulterate scallops by adding water and phosphates to increase their weight, resulting in consumers paying more for nothing but added water. This is economic fraud.
I had no idea that some of what we eat is not what we think we purchased, either in a market or at a restaurant. Fraud, along with lax labeling rules and regulatory enforcement, mean we can pay a high price for cheap, inaccurately or fraudulently labeled food items. We can get swindled on price and on taste. In some cases we can put our health at risk, too. For example, the fish escolar, which is known to cause significant digestive distress, is often sold as tuna.
Some summarizing factoids from the book:
- More than 99.9 percent of the so-called Kobe beef (a specific commodity from Japan and recognized as a delicacy) sold in this country is fake. The only USDA requirement for calling something Kobe beef is that it be beef. It is marketed as Kobe beef to justify high prices.
- Most Parmesan cheese sold in the United States, grated or whole, cheap or expensive, is made of less expensive substitutes and has been found to contain wood pulp.
- Restaurants can claim any food is “organic” or “dry aged,” “heritage breed” or “wild caught.” Even names of farms and types of fish are misrepresented to justify higher prices.
- Though widely considered the healthiest fat, 75 to 80 percent of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in this country is not what it claims to be, and some is even dangerous.
- DNA testing was used to compare the fish that menus offered with the actual species brought to the table in New York City sushi restaurants. In the largest study, 100 percent of the restaurants had lied, or had been lied to by their suppliers.
- A third of the seafood sold in this country is intentionally mislabeled by sellers to get higher prices for inferior products.
You get the idea.
On the positive side, I learned that armed with a little knowledge it is easy to know what to look for, what to purchase, and what to avoid, at home and in restaurants. Olmstead offers lots of practical advice. I took his advice and what a difference it makes! Here are three examples about food for home consumption.
Want to taste real “Parmesan” cheese? The real thing is not even called that. It’s Parmigiano-Reggiano, made only in the Italian communities of Parma and Reggio, as it has been for more than eight hundred years. It comes with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal of authenticity. Try it.
How about olive oil? Much of what’s labeled extra virgin olive oil has been diluted with less expensive oils, with lower grade olive oils, or older and often rancid stocks from previous harvests. For U.S. oils Olmstead recommends McEvoy Ranch in California, “arguably the finest olive oil maker in the States…” and says “Australia has become one of the most consistent producers of high-quality oil….” I’ve started buying oil from Cobram Estates, which offers oils from California. The difference in taste is amazing.
And then there is balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy. When I hear the phrase “nectar of the gods” I always think of locally-produced honey. Now I think of balsamic vinegar, too. Real balsamic vinegar is thick and syrupy, and aged at least eight years. Longer is better. I’ve never been one to slather dressing on salads, but with good olive oil and balsamic I pour it on. That combo makes any salad amazing.
When it comes to eating out, Olmstead doesn’t just tell us about what to watch out for. He sings the praises of restaurants that are intentional about serving high-quality, natural ingredients, well prepared. In my experience, there is plenty of opportunity right here in Auburn, on campus and off, to dine at places that work hard to do things right. You can taste the difference, and know that you are eating food that is good for you.
Speaking of on-campus dining and fresh, nutritious food, Tiger Dining has recently introduced Auburn Foods: “grown by the Auburn family for the Auburn family…. From burgers to salads to fish tacos, you can relax knowing that it’s always pure, always fresh, and always local. Look for the Auburn Foods symbol on menu items across campus.” It’s a real food dining experience Larry Olmstead celebrates.
While this isn’t a column about growing our own food, gardening is a great way to make sure we are eating real food. We know it is real food because we plant it, watch it grow, and harvest it ourselves.
We all know that, at a minimum, we have to eat to survive. But eating should be more than a matter of survival. Consuming real food should be an enjoyable experience that we mindfully relish (ahem), and preferably in good company. It takes significant effort and care by a lot of people to get food to our tables, and I think part of our obligation is to thoughtfully acknowledge and appreciate that effort and the dining experiences that result.
I can’t end this column without noting that for some people, food is a desperate problem. Food insecurity, not having enough nutritious food to eat, is a reality faced day after day by students and staff here on campus and by people in our communities. While high quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar cost more, good, nutritious, real food need not be expensive. In a sustainable society, everyone has sufficient nutritious, real food to meet their daily needs. This is a necessary and achievable goal.
With a little effort and knowledge we can be sure that we are eating real food, and we can do our part to make sure that others are getting enough real food for themselves.