Diane talks with Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior reporter on the podcast "How To Save A Planet," and a former climate reporter for the New York Times.
When we try to be mindful about what we eat, we choose healthy fats like olive oil, lean proteins like seafood, and maybe we occasionally splurge on some fancy Japanese steak or a glass of champagne. But according to food and travel writer Larry Olmsted, too often such foods are not actually what we think they are. In fact, they are cheap substitutes. It’s not just a question of getting what you pay for: in some instances, these fake foods might be bad for your health. The author of the new book “Real Food, Fake Food” joins Diane to talk about how to sniff out those imposters and make sure you’re getting the real deal.
- Larry Olmsted Writes the "Great American Bites" column for USA Today and is the food and travel columnist for Forbes.com
5 Foods You Can Trust—And 5 To Avoid
5 Foods You Can Trust-And 5 To Avoid, From The Author Of 'Real Food/Fake Food' - The Diane Rehm Show
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.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I’m Diane Rehm. A trip to the grocery store can be more treacherous than you think. You're likely to find cheap olive oil labeled extra virgin, inferior fish substituted for premium kinds, so-called Kobe beef that's not imported from Japan and champagne that's nothing like what you'd find in France. In a new book, author Larry Olmsted pulls aside the curtain to reveal some of the food industries dirty secrets.
MS. DIANE REHMHe also offers tips about how to make sure what we eat is the real thing. his new book is titled "Real Foods, Fake Foods: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating And What You Can Do About It." Larry Olmsted joins me in the studio. Throughout the hour, we'll invite you to call in, 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Larry, it's good to have you here.
MR. LARRY OLMSTEDThank you, Diane. It's good to be here. Thanks for having me.
REHMIndeed. Tell us what you mean by fake foods.
OLMSTEDThere's a number of different levels to the fakeness of food, but in general, I mean when you as a consumer think you're buying one thing and are being sold another.
OLMSTEDWell, you mentioned olive oil is probably the prime example. It's something -- I don't know anyone who cooks who doesn't have a bottle of olive oil in their home.
OLMSTEDAnd when you go to the supermarket, you buy what's labeled extra virgin olive oil, which is the highest international standard for olive oil. And depending on which study, which expert, you cite, between 85 and 92 percent of the time, that olive oil is not extra virgin.
REHMBut tell me how those studies are done? I mean, do you have secret agents going into grocery stores and testing out what's in a bottle labeled extra virgin?
OLMSTEDActually, they do because for olive oil, unlike a lot of foods, they grading is based on chemical analysis so, you know, there's a bit of mathematical benchmark. There's also a sensory component, but the University of California Davis has an olive center that studies the industry and they're sort of the leading gurus in the U.S. And they periodically go around and buy random samples of supermarket olive oils. They've also done similar studies for food service for the restaurant industry and they release their results and they're always shocking.
REHMSo who provides the best olive oil, truly extra virgin, at a reasonable price and what's the range of prices for a really good extra virgin olive oil?
OLMSTEDWell, that's one of the unfortunate things about it is you don't really have to pay more. I mean, some of the cheaper supermarket olive oils are at the low end of the price spectrum and you're not going to get a great olive oil, but you can go to a fancy gourmet store and pay $30 for a bottle of olive oil and still not get real olive oil. It's a very complicated product to shop for, but the simplest things, I think, are to look for geography and read the label closely. So I would buy -- recommend buying first if you can find it from Australia.
OLMSTEDThey have the strictest rules, quality control rules and regulations in the world.
REHMInteresting. Is that going to be more expensive?
OLMSTEDNo, actually, the largest company in Australia, it's called Boundary Bend that produces good olive oil, is just starting to roll their product out more in the United States. So it would be comparable to, I think, like a Whole Foods house brand, in the middle of the spectrum. Not as cheap as the supermarket olive oils, not as expensive as, like, and Dean and DeLuca, Williams-Sonoma olive oils.
REHMBut whatever happened to Italy? How did we get to Australia?
OLMSTEDItaly makes excellent olive oil. They export very little of it. They cannot even produce enough oil to meet their domestic demand. Italy is the largest exporter of olive oil in the world, but what very few people realize is they are also the largest importer of olive oil in the world. So they buy tank loads of oil from all around the Mediterranean Basin, from Morocco, from Syria, from Libya, from Turkey, and blend it and sell it as bottled in Italy, which is technically true.
REHMOh, I see. And what about Greek olive oil, which has a somewhat stronger taste, but nevertheless is awfully good.
OLMSTEDGreece makes exceptional olive oil. They also have the highest per capita olive consumption in the world and with it, a fairly low rate of heart disease. They actually drink olive oil sometimes in Italy. It's that good. The problem is...
REHMYou meant in Greece, didn't you?
REHMDidn't you mean in Greece? Your...
OLMSTEDOh, yes, in Greece.
OLMSTEDYes, sorry. And the problem is it's hard to get good Greek olive oil here just because, you know, their market's in a little bit of turmoil. It's not the most commercially organized country and not a lot is exported.
REHMInteresting. I tend to buy that 365 olive oil, extra virgin, from Whole Foods, which does not seem to be terribly expensive and does have a lovely taste.
OLMSTEDYes. That's a good quality oil. It's done well in the tests compared to the other supermarket brands. The olive oil that I use at home I buy from a place called the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club, which is a mail order company, and when I open -- I'll call my wife into the kitchen and tell her, I'm about to open a bottle of olive oil, and we'll crack the seal and my kitchen will smell like an olive grove.
OLMSTEDAnd you just don’t get that when you open a bottle from the supermarket.
REHMInteresting. Tell us about parmesan cheese because that's something else you write that Americans, especially, can be fooled by.
OLMSTEDYes. I mean, parmesan reggiano, I've been to Parma a few times. It's one of the world's great food-producing places. They make their famous cheese. They make prosciutto di Parma. A lot of the great balsamic vinegars are made just down the road, as are Ferraris and Lamborghinis. So it's a crafty place and parmesan reggiano is known in the industry as the king of cheeses. It's probably the single most respected cheese in the world.
OLMSTEDAnd we knock it off with extremely low quality domestic parmesan cheeses, which have been the subject of recent scandals because especially when sold ground, they're found to contain or be cut with a significant amount of cellulose, more commonly wood pulp.
REHMI mean, that is just so extraordinary. How can people get away with putting wood pulp into parmesan cheese?
OLMSTEDWell, when this scandal sort of broke earlier in the year and Bloomberg was the first to report it, people were shocked. Oh, there's cellulose in my cheese. What was shocking wasn't that there's cellulose in cheese.
REHMThey didn't taste it.
OLMSTEDBecause that's allowed. What was shocking was that several of the manufacturers exceeded the FDA limits and the idea that there's even a limit for cutting your cheese with wood is appalling to me.
REHMAnd to me, as well. What did the FDA actually allow?
OLMSTEDWell, they have a recommendation, which means it's non-binding, but it's based on the amount you're supposed to need to add to shelf-stabilize the product.
OLMSTEDSo most experts say that's around 2 percent and a lot of the samples had 4 to 8 percent and the worst performing supermarket sample that actually "Inside Edition" tested was over 20 percent, which, you know, you're almost a quarter of the container you're buying is added wood pulp.
REHMSo if I want to buy parmesan cheese without any wood pulp, where am I going to get it? Am I going to get it?
OLMSTEDYou are. It's actually one of the easiest of the products in my book to shop for. You simply want to buy the real Italian parmesan reggiano, which will have a seal. The European Union has these various designations of geographic quality, the highest is PDO, which is protected denomination of origin. Real parmesan cheese bears that seal. It also says on the rind in little dots that are imprinted in the cheese, parmesan reggiano over and over.
OLMSTEDMost good cheese shops have it. You can even buy it at the supermarket. The problem is it sits next to wedges of very similar-looking parmesan cheese from Wisconsin and Argentina and other places that often cost the same, but are almost definitely of lower quality.
REHMSo how come the FDA is not sort of sifting through these products and saying you're going way over the limit here?
OLMSTEDI spoke to FDA officials for my book and the repeated theme is we don't have a big enough budget and we think it's more important to spend it on drugs and in terms of food, to spend it on recalls, you know, when there's an outbreak of e coli at a burger chain or something. They have developed a very good traceability system.
REHMBut how is wood pulp affecting my digestive system?
OLMSTEDI can't imagine it's good for you, but unfortunately, it's hardly the worst failure of the FDA in terms of this issue.
REHMLarry Olmsted, his book, which is outraging me, is called "Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating And What You Can Do About It." We'll get to what you can do about it in just a couple of minutes. First, a short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, Larry Olmsted is with me. He's got a new book out. It's titled "Real Food, Fake Food." He has subtitled it, "Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating And What You Can Do About It." He teaches nonfiction writing at Dartmouth College. He lives in Vermont. Here's a question, an email from Kevin in Albuquerque. What about foods sold by Costco?
OLMSTEDThat's a great question, Kevin. I think that in -- for a lot of the foods I talk about in my book, you are better off buying them at the so-called big-box stores, Costco, BJ's, even Wal-Mart, than at the typical supermarket. People are very surprised, often, when I say that, but these stores have enormous clout and often lock up the production of a particular farm or supplier, who they can then dictate standards to. Seafood, fresh produce, a number of the categories I talk about I personally buy at BJ's just because I don't have Costco where I live, but it's very similar.
REHMTalk about seafood. What's happening with seafood?
OLMSTEDSeafood is probably the single worst category of food issues in our country. Ninety-one percent of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported, and a lot of that is farmed and produced with no oversight at facilities in Asia that have a well-established track record of using banned or unapproved antibiotics and chemicals. They're often transshipped to other countries on the way to hide their place of origin. The bottom line with seafood is a lot of the seafood we consume in the United States, we don't know where it came from.
REHMSo is that true even of Costco?
OLMSTEDWell, the easiest way to shop, there's a couple of third-party certification agencies that trace the seafood and then put a seal of approval on it. And Costco and BJ's both us those heavily.
REHMHow about Whole Foods?
OLMSTEDWhole Foods is excellent for seafood. That would be my number one choice. They do a better job at seafood than almost any other category. But, you know, they tend to be a little more expensive, and they're not as national. Where I live, I can't go to Whole Foods, but I can go to a big-box store.
REHMAll right, now we've got to get to my favorite subject, champagne. And I drink Korbel Brut, which is in a mid -- a low range of cost, but quality, taste coming from California. And you talk about having just been in Champagne. Talk about your experience.
OLMSTEDYes, I was in the Champagne region about two weeks ago, my last trip before the book release. I thought it was fitting because it's one of my favorites in the book, and I'd been before. Champagne is probably the single best-known geographically designated product. If you asked the average American what Champagne means, they will tell you almost unfailingly it's a sparkling wine that has to come from the Champagne region of France.
OLMSTEDThat should be true, but unfortunately it is not. It is also probably the most quality-protected product made in the world in terms of this regulatory strictness, and there literally is no such thing as a bad bottle of Champagne. The quality controls it has to meet just to be labeled Champagne ensure that even the least expensive Champagne is very, very good.
REHMSo what I'm drinking comes from California. It is said that Korbel got those grapes from France to begin the Champagne area in California. Not true?
OLMSTEDWell, I mean, a lot of the grapes in California originally came from Europe. I mean, they're all the same varietals. They were planted from France and Italy and Spain. So I am sure some of the grapes Korbel uses originates in France. That does not make it a Champagne region, however.
REHMSo the only Champagne that is true Champagne is pretty expensive?
OLMSTEDIt is, and we -- but we have a lot of more reasonable alternatives. So if you looked at any of the highly rated and reviewed sparkling wines from California, they will not say Champagne. They'll simply say California sparkling wine, and the sparkling wines from Italy say Prosecco, and the sparkling wines from Spain say Cava. And all of them make very good products. I'm not suggesting you can't drink other sparkling wines. I'm just suggesting other sparkling wines shouldn't trade on the name of Champagne.
REHMBut isn't there a sort of underwriting that says made in the style of Champagne-ouise or something like that?
OLMSTEDUnder U.S. law, all the wines have to have a country of origin on them. So Korbel will say made in California. Great Western, and I use air-quotes here, Champagne made in Upstate New York will say product of New York. But as I say, if you were to go buy a Rolex, you wouldn't flip it over hoping it said made in Switzerland because it's supposed to be made in Switzerland. Same is true for Champagne. You shouldn't have to read fine print.
REHMSo it would be nice if the Champagne from France came down in price, but I gather you found out that even the grapes, just the grapes, the Champagne region are quite expensive.
OLMSTEDThey are. It's the most expensive vineyard region in the world. The land sells for about $1 million an acre. And on top of that, they have very strict rules on the density of the grapes you can plant to keep the quality high, they have to be picked by hand. As I said, it's very strictly regulated, and the cost of the grapes to go into -- to make a single bottle of Champagne are $7 to $10, and that's before they've been crushed, before they've been aged, before they've been labeled, bottled, and yet you can buy a bottle of U.S-made faux Champagne for $7, ready to go.
REHMWow, all right, we've got lots of callers. I want to go to the phones, first to Aaron in Rome, New York. Aaron, you're on the air.
AARONHi, Diane, thank you for talking with me this morning.
REHMSurely, go right ahead.
AARONAll right. Well, I just wanted to let consumers know that I work -- actually I'm the executive vice president with the North American Olive Oil Association, which is a trade association of companies that sell and market olive oil in the U.S. and Canada, and we are actually the only organization in the U.S. that is buying samples off the shelf and having them tested.
AARONAs Larry mentioned, there's a full battery of lab tests to make sure that the products are actually authentic, and we're testing hundreds of bottles every year. And what we're finding is that the olive oils on the shelves are absolutely authentic, and I don't know of a single study or test that found 80 or 90 percent of extra virgin was not what it says it is.
AARONSo I'm not sure who those anonymous experts and sources are.
REHMI don't think they're anonymous, Aaron, hold on.
OLMSTEDYeah, I would say that there are several studies showing that primarily the University of California Davis Olive Center, which has done at least two national retail tests, plus a separate food service industry test, and found that on average 73 percent of what was labeled extra virgin olive oil was not, with some of the bigger supermarket brands failing up to 94 percent of the time.
OLMSTEDJust earlier this year, just a few months ago, "60 Minutes" did its own investigation using an independent lab, and they estimated that 80 to 85 percent -- I don't know how they did the testing. I just saw the segment. But they estimated 80 to 85 percent failed.
AARONPoint there, there was not actually full testing done. There have been some taste tests. The UC Davis study, which is six years old now and was a handful of bottles, did find, in their opinion, that one taste panel did not agree that the oils were extra virgin. But they certainly found no evidence that these oils were fake or adulterated or not made with olives. And what consumers really need to know -- and we actually also offer a field program, which Diane, your 365 extra virgin olive oil participates in this program with us, and they're tested on a regular basis.
AARONAnd what consumers really need to know is that olive oil, extra virgin olive oil in particular, is like wine. There's a big range of flavors and quality levels at different price points for different purposes.
AARONAnd also olive oil changes over time.
OLMSTEDActually there is a big range of flavors, but there is not a big range of quality. Extra virgin olive oil by definition is the very best tier of olive oil, which the International Olive Oil Commission splits into different tiers. It's supposed to represent the very best olive oil in the world, and instead in our country it represents just about all the olive oil you can buy.
OLMSTEDAnd just last week Italian authorities fined Deoleo, which is the parent company of Bertolli and Carapelli, two of the biggest supermarket brands sold in this country, $330,000 for falsely labeling lower-quality oil extra virgin. And that was less than a week ago.
REHMAll right, let's turn to another subject. Jeremy in Raleigh, North Carolina, you're on the air.
JEREMYHi, Diane, love your show, thank you for having me.
JEREMYI wanted to make a comment about this cellulose thing, this wood pulp thing. Calling it wood pulp is a little bit sensationalist. Cellulose is a basic plant fiber that your body needs. It's okay when you take it for, you know, health purposes, but it's not okay, apparently, to put it in Parmesan cheese. The other thing I wanted to say also was that the gentleman said that Parmesan cheese from Wisconsin or other places is almost certainly inferior quality. Well, I don't know if that's necessarily true.
JEREMYYou talked about California wines. California wines probably 20 or 30 years ago would have been considered inferior knockoffs, and look at where they are today. He does make plenty of valid points, but I think the consumers should decide for themselves the products that they want to get.
REHMI think you're -- I think you're absolutely right there, and consumers do make decisions based on taste, based on texture, based on smell. But we were talking about California Champagne, as opposed to California wine, Larry.
OLMSTEDAbsolutely. California makes some of the best wines in the world. However, the quality winemakers do not label their wines Burgundy or Chablis or Champagne. These are all wines that have geographic meanings to a particular place. So a good California producer will make Pinot Noir, which is the grape that would go into Burgundy. When you buy a jug wine of Burgundy in California, you're almost always getting a very poor-quality product.
OLMSTEDAnd California suffers from the same issue. Napa Valley wines are protected in only about a dozen countries around the world. They have a very good reputation, they bring a higher price, and Napa Valley fights this all the time, just as Champagne does. In other countries they're selling wine labeled Napa Valley that doesn't come from the Napa Valley.
REHMAnd by the way, we're getting lots of calls about California Olive Ranch olive oil.
OLMSTEDYes, you had asked me for buying tips, and I'd said Australia. I would also put Chile and California up there as places to look for. California makes some exceptional olive oils, and the state actually passed some rules that are a little bit stricter than most of the rest of the country uses, and now the California olive oil producers or California Olive Oil Council came out with its own seal that's on the bottles. I think it's 100 percent extra virgin certified. And that's something to look for.
OLMSTEDI personally have bought oil from McAvoy Ranch, which is a good California producer you can get by mail order.
REHMAll right, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. There are lots of people wondering about the -- the website you go to for, for example, looking for good olive oil.
OLMSTEDOlive oil, there was a book on this subject a little over a decade ago called "Extra Virginity," and the author, Tom Mueller, who lives in Italy, maintains a website that's very updated with lists of recommended brands. I think it's extravirginity.com. And that's a very good resource.
REHMAll right, and to Bellevue, Kentucky, Lawrence, you're on the air.
LAWRENCEHi Diane, how are you?
REHMI'm good, thanks.
LAWRENCEMy question is, I work in the retail liquor industry, and I was curious to know, on the bottles, there is no information of what is in these bottles of liquor as far as sugar, carbs, chemical composition, as far as flavored drinks, be it whipped cream vodka, cherry vodka, also caramel coloring. There's no information for the consumer to know what is in these bottles.
REHMWhipped cream vodka? I've never heard of that.
LAWRENCEYes, there's whipped cream, there's chocolate whipped cream, there's cake-flavored vodka.
LAWRENCEAnything you can think of under the sun. And -- but there's absolutely no information, if you look at a two-liter or a bottle of a soft drink, they'll have the carbs, sugars, various information.
LAWRENCEBut there's nothing in the liquor industry that, as far as I know, requires them to put the contents of what's in that bottle on...
REHMHow come they're exempt, Larry?
OLMSTEDBecause other food products, including soda, are -- the nutritional labeling and the ingredient labeling is overseen by the FDA. But all liquor labeling is overseen by the TTB, and...
REHMWhat's the TTB?
OLMSTEDIt's what used to be the Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms, they renamed it, and you're right especially with all of these new flavored drinks. I got pitched by a public relations person on cinnamon-roll-flavored vodka. I couldn't believe such a thing existed. There was a recent story -- what a lot of people don't know is an ingredient that's also an ingredient in antifreeze, that we use in our cars, is used to stabilize a lot of liquors, and a shipment of fireball whiskey from the United States was turned by European authorities recently because it contained this ingredient, which was banned in the countries it was going to.
OLMSTEDAnd then it turned out that they actually had two different formulations, one for American consumers and one for export, and they had shipped the wrong one.
REHMCould any of those have been harmful to your health if you didn't know what the ingredients were?
OLMSTEDWell, a lot of these products have very long-term effects. So it's hard to say I drank a bottle of this and got sick. There are definitely known carcinogens that are allowed as additives in our food. But the biggest problem is probably something like a peanut oil, when it's substituted off-label, that people are actually allergic to.
REHMAll right, we'll take a short break here. More of your questions, comments, when we come back. Larry Olmsted is the author of "Real Food/Fake Food."
REHMWell, there is certainly lots of people out there, Larry Olmsted, wondering about fake foods and the subject of Larry Olmsted's book is "Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating And What You Can Do About It." And we'll get to what you can do about it in just a couple of minutes. But here's a question from Doug, who says, "the fake food that drives me crazy is vanilla ice cream without vanilla. What natural flavors do they use rather than vanilla and is it that much cheaper?"
OLMSTEDVanilla is a particularly expensive flavor in its real form so it's commonly substituted. There's a number of alternative. One of the more disconcerting ones is the same as the active ingredient in lice killer that you would put on a kid's head when they came from school.
REHMOh, Larry, you got to be kidding me. Really. Come on.
OLMSTEDI wish I was kidding. What people don't realize about natural flavors is a lot of the process for determining whether they're natural is how they're produced, not that they exist in nature, but that they're produced through a natural process. So the FDA has a very, I would say, lenient view of natural.
REHMHow about lax?
OLMSTEDLax would be accurate. I actually had an entire chapter on the labeling issue in my book that we ended up cutting 'cause it was getting too long. But I think there are so many ingredients that are hidden under this term "natural flavorings" that shouldn't be in our foods, people would be shocked.
REHMSo if I want real vanilla ice cream, where do I go?
OLMSTEDWell, better quality ice creams will say, you know, contains vanilla, not artificial or natural vanilla flavors. That's a red flag.
REHMAnd is that the same for chocolate?
OLMSTEDIt's -- I personally avoid any product that has added natural or artificial flavors. And one of the products I talk about in my book specifically is truffle oil. There is really no such thing as truffle oil. The truffle oil we buy is entirely laboratory made. It has no truffles. But it has natural truffle flavoring because the process that they use to chemically create this flavor is deemed natural, but there's no truffles involved.
REHMYou know, every now and then, I wonder how we, as consumers, can really believe anything we see on a label. What are you saying to us as far as the food we're eating? Are you saying, be careful, learn more? What can we do to become better consumers?
OLMSTEDI'm saying learn more. And the reason that I titled my book "Real Food, Fake Food," and not "Fake Food, Real Food," is because these real foods are so good. I love olive oil. I'm not here to disparage extra virgin olive oil. I use it every day. I love parmesan reggiano cheese. I love grass-fed beef. You know, there's a lot -- these products are best in class. I love champagne. I just want when people set out to buy them and spend their money on them, I want them to get the real thing.
OLMSTEDAnd so a lot of it is education and a really good labeling example in our meat supply. As a lot of people know, cattle get hormones, growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids. Poultry gets antibiotics, but they're not allowed to use hormones, growth hormones in domestic production of poultry at all. Yet, a number of poultry purveyors have realized that if they sell the exact same chicken labeled no hormones added, even though it's not legal to have hormones in chicken, they can command a higher price so they do that.
OLMSTEDAnd that's the kind of -- I'm not here to demand lots more government regulation of our life, but it would be really easy for the USDA and the FDA to say, you can't put nonsensical phrasing on labels.
REHMWell, what does it mean? I mean, what you're implying is illegality.
OLMSTEDWell, no, they're allowed, under the law, to put "no hormones added," but...
REHMBut if they've added hormones, they're lying.
OLMSTEDYeah, but so they don't use hormones in producing chicken. They can't. So it would be like buying a bottle of milk and saying, you know, no vodka added.
REHMOh, okay. I got you, I got you.
OLMSTEDIt just -- it doesn’t mean anything, but people see it and they assume that the other chicken has hormones.
REHMOkay. Now, tell me about grass-fed beef.
OLMSTEDSo grass-fed beef, like extra virgin olive oil, widely believed to be better for you, heart-healthier.
REHMIt's also tougher.
OLMSTEDIt is. You have to cook it a little bit differently, but again, it comes down to the quality of the cattle involved. And in 2006, the FDA passed a label -- I mean, the USDA, I'm sorry, they regulate meat -- a label regulation for grass-fed beef, defining what it meant. Earlier this year, they repealed that label so it is now, as it was before 2006, as it used to be with organic and as it still is with natural, producers can slap grass-fed on any beef, it's completely legal. It doesn't have to have eaten any grass. It still can eat the diet of liquid corn silage that most of our cattle eat.
OLMSTEDAnd so consumers read a book like "The Omnivores Dilemma" and come away thinking, wow, grass-fed beef is healthier. I should eat that. And I think you should. But then, they go to buy it and that's not what they're getting, even though it says that.
REHMNow, you've got, again, a store like Whole Foods, which does say it is giving you grass-fed beef. I don't know that that's absolutely the case and exclusively the case. But how can we, as consumers, know better?
OLMSTEDWell, so at the end of each chapter in my book, I give specific buying tips and just as there is with olive oil and the California producers, there's a grass-fed ranching association whose members, by participation and using the seal, are not allowed to use antibiotics and hormones and also actually have to feed the cattle grass, none of which is required by the USDA standard. So I would look for that certification. There's also particular brands like Niman Ranch, which you see a lot on restaurant menus, but they also sell it retail, which is a cooperative of growers that follow these rules.1
REHMBut the butcher behind the counter is not going to show you the side of beef with all that labeling on it, is he?
OLMSTEDNo. Usually, that would on the package. You know, there's still cut steaks that you would buy in the counter. Unfortunately -- well, so the USDA has a higher standard, which is 100 percent grass-fed, which does mean that they have to have been raised on grass. So the grass-fed is meaningless, the 100 percent grass-fed means something, but the 100 percent grass-fed, when people see this grass-fed, they have this vision of cows happily walking around. The 100 percent grass-fed can still be feedlot cattle that's reared on drugs. It's just being fed grass instead of corn in its stall.
REHMI'm very frustrated. Okay. Let's go to Indianapolis. Shawn, you're on the air.
SHAWNHey, guys. Thanks for taking my call.
SHAWNI have a question about canola oil. It shows up in a lot of "healthy product," even organic products and yet, I hear conflicting reports about, you know, what is a canola, for Pete's sake, you know?
OLMSTEDCanola oil is a seed oil processed from rape seeds and it is considered one of the healthier oils, but, you know, I'm not a doctor. I'm not really here to, you know, to make general health claims, but it can be produced organically and that's the requirement for including it on the label of an organic product.
REHMDoes that answer it?
SHAWNI guess. I still don't know whether I should be eating products that have it or not.
OLMSTEDUnfortunately, you know, I use olive oil in my cooking, but you're not going to find a box of cookies with olive oil as one of the ingredients so, you know, from what I know of the oils that are commercially used, canola's probably the best.
SHAWNGreat, thank you.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. To Lebanon, New Hampshire, Hannah, you're on the air.
HANNAHI work for a coop food store in Hanover, New Hampshire, and I just wanted to bring the concept of transportation into the conversation. So I personally buy California olive oil because it's traveled less far and all oil specifically has a really high potential for oxidation, which is what causes aging and disease in our body so we want to reduce the amount that we're consuming that's already oxidized. So I was wondering if our expert could comment on that.
OLMSTEDSure, Hannah. And first, I'd like to say that I actually shop at the coop food store where you work, where I've been a member for 20 plus years, my hometown grocery store so I'm very familiar with it. I would say that California is not significantly closer to New Hampshire than Portugal so in terms of that, you know, I don't know. But the oxidation is a very real issue in olive oil, but generally that is once the bottle is opened, it begins to go bad very quickly. I mean, hopefully, a quality bottle is sealed whether it's being shipped from Europe or it's being shipped from California so I don't think the actual distance traveled affects that.
REHMSo what are you saying about how long a good bottle of olive oil really retains its flavor?
OLMSTEDWell, I know you, earlier, mentioned buying gallon cans and that's probably the worst thing you can do as a consumer.
REHMWell, my husband and I used to consume a lot of Greek olive oil.
OLMSTEDThe better the quality of the oil to begin with, the longer it lasts. But if you had the best olive oil in the world and you opened the bottle, I would say nine months would be the absolute outside. Unfortunately, people keep the bottle of olive oil in their cabinet for years sometimes. You got to remember that while most oil -- almost all the other oils we use are from seeds, olive oil is fresh pressed juice. It's not -- you could view it as fresh squeezed orange juice. You just crush an olive, you get the oil out. So you wouldn't, you know, open a bottle of orange juice and keep it in your cabinet for a year.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Herndon, Virginia. Nina, you're on the air.
NINAHi, there. So -- sorry, my family's from Spain and we make wine so I kind of grew up with wine in, you know, my life a lot. And I moved to Virginia kind of recently and one of the most popular things here is a lot of vineyards. So my husband and I like to go to these vineyards and something that I've noticed is that a lot of these vineyards are really, really expensive and the wine isn't great. And then, I can go buy a bottle of wine from Spain for $5 and it'll taste way better.
NINASo what I thought was funny is kind of like the snobbery that comes with wine, specifically, because people think that an expensive bottle of wine is better, but a lot of the time, it's not. It's just expensive for no reason and I don't understand why people pay so much for wine that doesn't taste great.
OLMSTEDI mean, the taste of wine is, obviously, very subjective, but I think you're right in that price is not usually a good indicator of quality. I think with the, you know, interest in domestic winemaking has really increased and a lot of that is the visiting of the winery. So it's expensive in this country to operate a small winery and I think that's sort of part of what you're paying for when you visit.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk about something you have very few doubts about, Scotch whiskey.
OLMSTEDWhen people ask me, well, you know, what can I do to feel safe? What's a real food? Probably the realest of the real foods in my book is Scotch whiskey. I use that as an example of how it's done right, not as something in any way to avoid. Scotch whiskey is one of the only foreign geographic products that enjoys a specific protection from the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Congress passed a law defining Scotch whiskey as Scotch whiskey as defined by the UK government. So basically, accepting their interpretation. In turn, the UK has very strict rules for Scotch whiskey.
OLMSTEDThey actually made it illegal to produce any whiskey in Scotland that does not meet the standard of Scotch whiskey so that there couldn't be a, say, a confusing second tier whiskey from Scotland. So the quality control is excellent, but it's also just something that has never really been knocked off in our country. When you buy a bottle of Scotch, you're getting Scotch, whether it's single malt or blended. It's not true in some other countries, but it's true here.
REHMAll right. Here's a tweet from Maryanne. "Please talk about Trader Joe's track record on accurate labeling."
OLMSTEDThe only, you know, first I should say that one of the problems is that there's no really national supermarket chains. There's different supermarkets in every region so it's very hard to stay on top of who's selling what. But Trader Joe's, I know The Boston Globe did a big investigation into seafood mislabeling at retail and Trader Joe's, along with some of the big box stores, performed the best. They scored very well when it came to accuracy in seafood and that's the one study that I know of. I can't really speak to their other products.
REHMAnd an email from Jean in Annapolis, "please ask how we can tell if honey is real and if muscles are real."
OLMSTEDOkay, Jean. First of all, I got to say, unfortunately, you have to be also worried about your crab cakes down there in Annapolis.
OLMSTEDThere's been a number of scandals with Chesapeake Bay area restaurants serving what they claim were Maryland blue crabs that were not.
REHMWere -- what were they?
OLMSTEDUsually imported crabs from Asia, different species. Maryland Department of Agriculture started this program called True Blue and where they audit the restaurants and the restaurants that participate and pass get to put this True Blue on their door, their menus so I would look for that.
REHMThere is nothing like a blue crab crab cake.
OLMSTEDThat is absolutely true and that's really the theme of my book. That's a real food. People who come from another country, another part of the world or the U.S. and go to Annapolis, that's what they want to eat.
OLMSTEDRight? Now, getting back to honey. Honey's a much bigger problem. The food fraud institute at the University of Michigan, which it sad that we even have this body, but they study this issue and they ranked honey as the third most widely faked food product in the world and Americans consume more honey than any other country.
OLMSTEDThe general rule that you'll see throughout my book is if you can't look at a product and tell exactly what it is, it's more likely to be fake. So it's very hard to fake a whole Maine lobster. It's snapping at you. But you pick up a jar of honey and hold it up to the light, you can't really tell what's in it. Is it honey? Is it high fructose corn syrup, which it often is cut with?
REHMAnd that, my friends, is the lesson for the day from Larry Olmsted. His new book, if you want to delve further into these subjects, is titled "Real Food, Fake Food." Congrats, Larry.
OLMSTEDThanks so much for having me, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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