Real Food, Fake Food
Loree’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series covering books about America’s ever-evolving food supply. We are once again lucky to have nutritionist Annie Riedel’s insights about what and how we are eating. For the record, fruits and vegetables were not mentioned once in the book she discusses below. Because you just can’t fake Broccolini goodness.
In his book Real Food Fake Food Larry Olmsted uncovers some truths about what we are eating. Fake foods run rampant throughout our food supply: from olive oil to Parmesan cheese to fish, our foods are often not what we think they are, nor what we have paid for. Some may think this is not a big deal, but from a nutrition and health perspective it really is.
Olive oil has been shown time and again to be the healthiest fat we consume. It has been credited with reducing rates of many cancers, lowering cholesterol, and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. As a result olive oil sales have skyrocketed. But beware, when you purchase olive oil, you may not be getting the product nor the health benefits you expect.
Olive oil is in fact, very different from some of the other oils commonly sold, which may explain why it is in a class of it’s own when it comes to nutrition. Olive oil is actually a juice. Producers simply press, or “juice” olives to release the oil. In contrast, oils like corn or canola are “extracted” in a long and involved process using solvents and flavorings that are far from natural or healthy.
Olmstead did some investigative work and found that most of the olive oil consumed in the US is tainted — either by having additional oils added such as peanut or canola, or “extra virgin” oil being blended with lower grade olive oil that has chemicals added. To add insult to injury, there is little government regulation when it comes to olive oil. The term “extra virgin” is not monitored so anyone can put it on a bottle of cheap low quality oil and sell it at a premium. So, if consumers are willing to shell out more money to reap the benefits of what all the health studies are showing, and buying “extra virgin” olive oil, they may not be getting what they are paying for.
What can you do?
- Look for the seal from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). Bottles that have this seal are reliable.
- Don’t buy oils that are “virgin”, “pure”, or “light”: you are guaranteeing that you are getting a fake with those labels.
- Since olive oil is a juice it begins spoiling the minute it is harvested. Look for the harvest day on the bottle – it should be less that a year ago.
- Since olive oil spoils with exposure to air, buy smaller bottles. The big gallon of inexpensive olive oil will give you little to no health benefits by the time it is empty.
Fish is probably the most faked of all foods. From outright lies about what type of fish we are consuming to mislabeling the way the fish was harvested or where it came from, fraud is rampant in the seafood industry.
Imported shrimp is probably one of the dirtiest foods we consume. The vast majority of shrimp consumed in the US is from shrimp farms in Asia. Farmed Asian shrimp have been found to contain chemical residues and are raised in environmentally destructive conditions using slave labor.
What can you do?
- Buy American, and when you can, buy local from a fish monger that you trust. US fisheries are far and above the rest of the world in safely handling fish and managing the fish supply.
- Buy Alaskan. The state of Alaska may be the most reliable and sustainable of all fisheries. If you purchase salmon from Alaska with the Alaska Seafood seal, you can be assured you are getting wild salmon that is free of contaminants and purer than most other fishes.
Parmesan and Champagne and Beef, Oh My!
Food fraud also occurs when producers use regional labels that are considered trademarked in most of the world. “Parmesan” cheese that comes in a cardboard can is a good example. I think most of us grew up with a can of it in our refrigerators. That can has little to do with real Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is made in Parma Italy using techniques that are centuries old.
“Champagne” that is produced outside of the Champagne region of France is another example of regional hijacking. In most of the world, that word can only be used if grown there. There is no such thing as American Champagne though wineries here flagrantly use that term to market sparking wines.
“Kobe” beef sold in the US is another food rampantly mislabeled. Very little Kobe is actually imported to the US, and none of it makes it to the retail market. In recent years less than 100 pounds of Kobe have been imported annually, and only three restaurants in the US actually serve true Kobe.
What can you do?
- As a consumer: eat more fruits and vegetables. As an operator: put more fruits and vegetables in front of your customers. Nothing is more real than produce that is plucked from the earth, and there is simply no way to “fake” them.
There is some good news in all of this. Consumers – particularly Millennials – are increasingly vocal about knowing where their food comes from, and everyone from restaurant operators, university food service programs and even large retailers have responded in kind. Specialty grocers like Whole Foods as well as mass market retailers like Costco, Walmart and Trader Joe’s all care deeply about their sourcing. And consumers are reaping the benefits.
Annie Riedel MPH, RD
Annie received her Bachelors degree in Food Science and Nutrition and her Masters in Public Health from the University of California at Berkeley. She worked in international nutrition with refugees in Southeast Asia. She also worked with Share Our Strength in New York City, providing nutrition education for low-income families. She currently lives in Marin County, California with her husband and two children, eating for optimal health.