July 8, 2016

5 Foods You Can Trust—And 5 To Avoid, From The Author Of ‘Real Food/Fake Food’

By The Diane Rehm Show Staff

Food writer Larry Olmsted warns that tuna in sushi is one of the most commonly "fake" foods, replaced by restaurants with a lower-cost alternative without notifying the consumer.

Food writer Larry Olmsted warns that tuna in sushi is one of the most commonly "fake" foods, replaced by restaurants with a lower-cost alternative without notifying the consumer.

Larry Olmsted titled his book “Real Food/Fake Food,” instead of “Fake Food/Real Food,” he told us during his July 6 interview on our show, because he’s passionate about high-quality, natural meals — and he wants others to have the same approach, too.

“These real foods are so good,” he said. “These products are best in class.”

But as a food writer, he’s been frustrated by how often purportedly premium ingredients are replaced by lower-cost substitutes.

“When people set out to buy [high-quality products] and spend their money on them, I want them to get the real thing,” Olmsted added.

In that spirit, he gave us a list of consumer products that are most often what they claim to be — and which are more difficult to source.

Buy These Five “Real” Foods

  1. Champagne

    The Treaty of Madrid in 1891 made champagne one of the world’s protected foodstuffs, and for most of the civilized world, the name can only be used to refer to a sparkling wine produced in France’s champagne region, under some of the strictest quality controls in the world of food production. However, the U.S. is one of the few outlaw countries that ignores France’s exclusivity and allows production of lower quality domestic “champagne.” Fortunately, the solution is easy: The real stuff says “Product of France,” and that, along with the word champagne, are all you need to have a world-class experience.

  2. Whole Lobster

    Seafood substitution is rampant, and when processed, lobster is frequently faked: lobster ravioli, lobster salad, and lobster bisque all have little or no actual lobster. It may sound funny, but you can’t fool consumers into buying a lobster that isn’t a lobster when it is in its shell. Go whole.

  3. Parmigiano-Reggiano

    The King of Cheese is frequently counterfeited in both whole and grated form, but the real thing is easy to spot. The rind always has “Parmigiano-Reggiano” all over every inch of it, in a step and repeat pattern of pin dot indentations. If you can’t read the words embossed in the crust, do not buy it. The label should also have the full name — American law allows a loophole for our translation, Parmesan — and say “Product of Italy.”

  4. Scotch Whisky

    The U.S. has consistently refused to honor the trademarks, copyrights and intellectual property of other countries when it comes to foodstuffs, but Scotch is one happy exception. There is a specific act of Congress to protect the name, and all Scotch Whisky in the U.S. — blended or single malt, expensive or not — is the real deal.

  5. Wild-Caught Alaskan Seafood

    Alaska is the only U.S. state that has sustainability written into its constitution, and the state produces some of the best seafood on earth. Fish farming is completely outlawed, so all real Alaskan seafood is wild caught. Alaska also takes great pains to protect its “Alaskan Seafood” label at retail, but in restaurants you can never be sure.

Avoid These Five “Fake” Foods

  1. Red Snapper

    Red snapper is a delicious and prized eating fish. It is also commercially rare. A major investigation found that more than 94 percent of the red snapper that appears on menus and at retail stores isn’t real. It’s the poster child for “fake food.” As one scientist well-versed in the subject put it, “just never order red snapper.”

  2. Kobe Beef

    Kobe Beef is the most prized and famed meat on earth, but I found in my reporting that less than 3,000 head make the quality standards each year, and only 10 percent are actually exported from Japan. Most of those go to Macau, Singapore and Hong Kong. The amount that reaches the U.S. would not meet the average beef consumption of a hundred Americans and only eight very specialized eateries in the U.S. ever serve the real thing. The rest is a lie, including almost every Kobe beef dish you see on a menu.

  3. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

    Olive Oil is one of the world’s great foodstuffs, both delicious and healthy — the cornerstone of the lauded Mediterranean diet. It’s also hard to get the real thing: various studies and experts estimate that 80 to 92 percent of U.S. extra-virgin olive oil is fake. You can get the real thing, but labeling and regulations are so arcane it takes a lot of work, and most supermarket versions come up woefully short.

  4. Truffle Oil Products

    Truffle oil has nothing to do with truffles, one of the world’s prized delicacies. It is a laboratory creation, made in the same manner as perfume, most often from a processed byproduct of formaldehyde. Great restaurants shave fresh truffles over risotto, but many more restaurants pour this unnatural substance over fries and popcorn and potatoes. The word “truffled” on a menu is a red flag to eat someplace else.

  5. Tuna Sushi

    White tuna, commonly used in tuna and spicy tuna rolls, is often not tuna at all: More than nine times out of 10 it’s a substitute, and the number one impostor is escolar, nicknamed “the Ex-Lax fish,” because it can cause digestive distress. When people get sick after eating sushi, they often say “I had bad tuna,” but the reality is that they never had the tuna that they ordered and paid for at all. The other common substitutes for tuna are not much more appetizing.

Hear more about “real” food and “fake” food in our full hour with Larry Olmsted.


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