Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It

Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It

by Larry Olmsted


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“Olmsted makes you insanely hungry and steaming mad—a must-read for anyone who cares deeply about the safety of our food and the welfare of our planet.” —Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue! Bible series

“The world is full of delicious, lovingly crafted foods that embody the terrain, weather, and culture of their origins. Unfortunately, it’s also full of brazen impostors. In this entertaining and important book, Olmsted helps us fall in love with the real stuff and steer clear of the fraudsters.” —Kirk Kardashian, author of Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm

You’ve seen the headlines: Parmesan cheese made from wood pulp. Lobster rolls containing no lobster at all. Extra-virgin olive oil that isn’t. So many fake foods are in our supermarkets, our restaurants, and our kitchen cabinets that it’s hard to know what we’re eating anymore. In Real Food / Fake Food, award-winning journalist Larry Olmsted convinces us why real food matters and empowers consumers to make smarter choices.

Olmsted brings readers into the unregulated food industry, revealing the shocking deception that extends from high-end foods like olive oil, wine, and Kobe beef to everyday staples such as coffee, honey, juice, and cheese. It’s a massive bait and switch in which counterfeiting is rampant and in which the consumer ultimately pays the price.

But Olmsted does more than show us what foods to avoid. A bona fide gourmand, he travels to the sources of the real stuff to help us recognize what to look for, eat, and savor: genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, fresh-caught grouper from Florida, authentic port from Portugal. Real foods that are grown, raised, produced, and prepared with care by masters of their craft. Part cautionary tale, part culinary crusade, Real Food / Fake Food is addictively readable, mouthwateringly enjoyable, and utterly relevant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616207410
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 10/03/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 154,761
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Larry Olmsted is an award-winning journalist who has been a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, where he taught nonfiction writing. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Real Food / Fake Food and Getting into Guinness, a history of the Guinness Book of World Records, a book for which he broke three world records himself while researching. He currently writes online columns for Forbes and USA Today, and he appears regularly on television and radio. Olmsted is an avid fan of American Ninja Warrior and a passionate fan of sports fans.

Read an Excerpt


Food fraud, or the act of defrauding buyers of food or ingredients for economic gain . . . has vexed the food industry throughout history.
—RENÉE JOHNSON, “Food Fraud and ‘Economically Motivated Adulteration’ of Food and Food Ingredients”

I love food.

My friends tell me I have the best job in the world, and it’s hard to argue. As a journalist focused on travel and food, I’ve spent the last twenty-plus years visiting great hotels in some of the nicest parts of the world and eating really well. When I’m not eating out, I’m cooking at home. I have a garden, I carry back exotic ingredients from all corners of the globe, and I’ve traveled thousands of miles to eat at particular restaurants or taste hard to find local specialties. My work has taken me to roadside barbecue stands and clam shacks, to Michelin-starred restaurants and top celebrity chefs. It’s taken me inside the James Beard house, to food laboratories and processing plants, to farms and artisanal cheese dairies. I’ve seen how some of the finest delicacies and specialty foods in the world are made, I’ve seen food infused with passion, and I’ve tasted dishes so good they haunt my memory. But among all these bright spots, food hides a darker side.

I’ve visited Japan several times in the past two decades, and while physically small, Japan packs a big culinary punch—it is one of the world’s great food countries. Visitors are often surprised to learn that Japanese culture has a rich tradition of fake food, but happily it’s a tradition designed to help consumers. Many restaurants in Japan display an array of replica dishes in their window so you can see what they serve, even if you can’t understand the menu, and in a pinch you can always point. These replicas are works of art, elaborate and realistic despite being made of plastic. Just as New York has a garment district and jewelry district, there is an entire neighborhood in Tokyo known for its fake-food shops, where restaurant owners come to buy models. Tourists visit as well, seeking souvenirs, such as a tray of delicious-looking nigiri sushi that can adorn a counter at home and never go bad, or a bowl of ramen noodles topped with chopped green onions; egg; and a tempura shrimp, complete with tail. Utterly fake, the stuff is meant to be inedible.

Like Japan, the United States also has a rich tradition of faking food, but it is not quaint, helpful, or harmless. Our supermarkets and our homes are full of Fake Foods that we actually eat. At their least malicious, these are rip-offs, defrauding us economically, depriving us of quality, and literally leaving a bad taste in our mouths. At their worst, they make us sick and may even kill us. Along the way, they put farmers and food craftsmen around the globe out of work, destroy the environment, and even promote slave labor. Some of these fakeries are outright criminal, some merely immoral, and many not only legal but supported by our government. Ironically, these foods often prey most heavily on consumers who are actively trying to eat better and healthier, as well as those with more rarefied tastes. Many fakes are found in the specialty foods sector, which for the first time in 2014 topped one hundred billion dollars in the United States. This category is rife with scams, including many foods viewed as healthier choices, as well as fancy cheeses, meats, oils, and other “gourmet” items.

Whether or not you care about your health, economic justice, or the environment, if you simply care how your food tastes, this issue matters. When you’ve eaten something that lingers in your memory and leaves you craving more, when you’ve had one of those sublime meals where you lick your lips and exclaim, “Yum!,” you’ve probably just tasted Real Food. And whenever there is a delicious Real Food, there is good chance someone is making a fake version.

When I say fake, I mean fake, as in not what you think you are buying or eating. There are a lot of problems with how food is produced in this country, and if you want to be terrified by the horrors of industrial poultry production or find out why your drive-thru meal contains so many ingredients you’ve never heard of, put this book down and read Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food, Inc., or Fast Food Nation. I’m talking about a massive industry of bait and switch, where you get something other than promised. I don’t like industrially produced supermarket beef, but it is in fact beef, and it lives up to that billing. But when the same drug-laden, artificially fed beef is passed off as “natural,” “grass fed,” or “pure,” then it becomes fake—it is no longer what it claims to be. Fake Foods are usually of low quality. But they are not fake because they are of low quality; they are of low quality because they are fake. The perfect example is Maine lobster, a Real Food that is delicious, coveted, and labor intensive to shell, as anyone who has eaten whole lobster knows. That’s why in New England, the popular lobster roll, basically a heaping mound of lobster meat on a bun, is one of the most expensive sandwiches you can find on a menu. So how can fast-food chains sell lobster rolls for half the price or less? Simple—their lobster rolls don’t contain actual lobster. And it’s legal. Welcome to Fake Food.

Japan’s restaurants may display fake food in windows, but inside there is plenty of Real Food to eat. On one trip years ago, I had the pleasure of tasting Kobe beef, which is perhaps the single most famous food Japan produces, one that has taken on mythical proportions. So I was perplexed when I returned to the States and found the Kobe beef on this side of the Pacific so dramatically different, lacking in both marbling and flavor, nothing like what I tasted in Japan. I decided to look into this and figure out why. It did not take me long to discover that for years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had banned the import of all Japanese beef, without exception.

The bottom line? All of the Kobe beef sold in this country, by chefs famous and anonymous, in ten-dollar sliders or three-hundred-dollar steaks, was fake, all of it, end of story. Every single restaurant and store purporting to sell Kobe beef—or any Japanese beef—was lying, including some of the country’s best-known chefs.

When I wrote about this for my online Forbes column, it became the most widely read of hundreds of such columns, surpassing one million readers, and several years later it still gets thousands of new reads each month. I was amazed by the interest and furious passion I aroused—on both sides of the issue. Many readers wrote in because they were outraged, justifiably, at having paid hundreds of dollars for a single steak, only to be ripped off. Others took a more xenophobic view, bashing Japan and defending the false advertising by insisting that we had no need to kowtow to other country’s trademarks, and this being America, we should just do damn well as we please. Others, somewhat irrelevantly, wrote in to praise the quality of domestic beef. For me, the striking point was that almost none of the respondents had actually tasted Kobe beef.

As a matter of policy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not police most food fraud, and it hardly matters because most Kobe scams occur at restaurants, which are largely exempted from labeling laws. So they almost always get away with it. In light of all this, I began to wonder, if Kobe’s good name is so blatantly misused to defraud the public on a nationwide scale, and there are no repercussions for doing so, how many of our other foods are fake? The unfortunate answer is a lot, and these foods are often much scarier.

The seafood industry is far worse than beef, so rife with fakery, both legal and illegal, that it boggles the mind. Suffice it to say, if you think you are buying or eating red snapper—ever—you might want to think again. 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. Wild-caught salmon? Wild-caught anything? Maybe not.

Every supermarket and gourmet store in the country has a cheese counter, and every one of them is chock-full of fakes. So is the wine department. And the oil aisle. It’s easy to take a “so what?” attitude when you order one kind of fish and get another, until you consider that the fake is likely pumped full of drugs and antibiotics—sometimes banned and illegal—none of which would have been in the fish you actually ordered. Not all Fake Foods are harmless, and many are disgusting. If you cook, you probably have a bottle of olive oil in your cupboard. Real extra-virgin olive oil is just about the healthiest fat on the market, and studies have repeatedly shown this is the main reason Americans buy so much of it. Yet most bottles sold in this country are fake. The impostors have often been stripped of health benefits—and some might not even be made from olives. This is one of the most pervasive Fake Foods in America, reaching deep into home kitchens, restaurants, and supermarkets, and not unfamiliar to the government agencies supposedly watching over our food supply.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimated that about 10 percent of all commercially available food in our country is subjected to some sort of adulteration. Unless you are leaving the supermarket via the “8 Items or Less” express lane, something in your cart is likely fake. Commonly sold fake foodstuffs are not limited to exotic items like Kobe beef; they include everyday staples such as coffee, orange juice, apple juice, wine, rice, cheese, honey—and, of course, seafood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about forty-eight million Americans suffer from some sort of food-related illness each year, and only about a fifth can be causally identified. That leaves more than thirty-eight million Americans each year sickened in unknown ways by what they ate. One of the world’s leading experts believes that “food fraud probably accounts for quite a substantial proportion of that.” If you’ve ever gotten sick after eating sushi and blamed “bad fish,” you might have been only half right: it was the fish but probably not because it was spoiled. In many cases, the fake substituted for what you order is a fish that is always “bad,” an inherently toxic species banned in other countries. This practice is so common it is the new normal.

As I expanded my investigation into Fake Food, I became increasingly angry. I had expected piracy, because crime thrives on profit, and if there is a buck to be made counterfeiting any valuable consumer good, someone will do it. But I wasn’t prepared for the scale, with organized crime rings and infrastructure similar to large-scale drug-smuggling operations. More disturbing is our government’s participation and complicity in Fake Food. At the low end of the damage curve, officials who have higher priorities or limited budgets simply look the other way and ignore what they know is widespread and often dangerous fraud. In several industries, government regulations, such as labeling laws allowing winemakers to produce domestic “Champagne,” actively encourage producers to counterfeit valuable products and mislead American consumers. As I learned all this, it was hard sometimes to not just throw my hands up in bewilderment at a food world where Walmart often does a better job of protecting American consumers than does the FDA.

Michigan State University’s Food Fraud Initiative (FFI) estimates fraud at nearly fifty billion dollars annually. That’s twice the entire world market for coffee, the single most valuable agricultural commodity. One fake honey scam in the United States netted eighty million dollars. Michigan State’s FFI is just one of several such recently opened facilities around the world. In 2013, Great Britain created a new criminal investigative division, the Food Crimes Unit—a real-life CSI devoted solely to this issue. Italy has a special police food fraud unit that 60 Minutes called the “FBI of Food.” Lots of foods we take for granted should be viewed with reasoned skepticism. Your home, from the liquor cabinet to the freezer, is full of food impostors. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there is plenty of healthful and delicious Real Food. You just have to know what to look for. When counterfeiters hawk bogus goods in the street, they are usually selling fake versions of costly brands with cachet or perceived quality, like Rolex watches or Louis Vuitton handbags. As a counterfeiter, there is little profit in faking cheap or less desirable goods. The only reason there is so much Fake Food is that there is so much Real Food.

And I love Real Food.

Table of Contents

1. Real Food, Perfected: A Day in the Life of Parma
2. What Is Fake Food?
3. Fishy Fish
4. Spoiled Oils: Olive and “Truffle”
5. What’s in a Name? Real Foods Come from Real Places
6. Q: Where’s the Kobe Beef? A: Not on Your Plate
7. Champagne and Scotch: The Sincerest Form of Flattery
8. Cheesy Cheeses
9. Fine Wines and Not-So-Fine Wines
10. The Other Red (and White) Meat?
11. Fakes, Fakes, and More Fakes: What Else Is There?
12. In Conclusion
Appendix: Acronyms to Know

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