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Real Food, Fake Food

nytcover 260wLongtime contributor Larry Olmsted has written an important and groundbreaking book about the food that we eat every day, Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It. It’s already on the The New York Times Bestseller List and you can probably catch Larry making the rounds on Public Radio, CBS This Morning and other shows.

Here’s an excerpt and a link to the home page of Real Food, Fake Food.

“What Is Real Food? 

Real Food is just what it sounds like – when you buy it or eat it, you get exactly what you think you are getting. It’s the Real Thing – the food it says it is.

Consider the Maine lobster: buy it or order it whole and you are never going to be let down. You can look at it and tell it is a lobster, and a North Atlantic lobster rather than a less desirable clawless warm water version. You can expect it to be reliably delicious. But what if you order lobster bisque? Or lobster ravioli? Or lobster roll or lobster salad?  Recent studies have shown that many restaurants, including the biggest national seafood chains, cut the lobster with cheaper seafood – or never use any lobster at all. Lobster is a Real Food that is often faked.

Some Real Foods are less obvious than lobster. There are many foods associated with one specific place, where that food has been made under strict legal supervision and held to high standards of quality and purity, often for hundreds of years. Sweet onions from Vidalia, Georgia. Maple syrup from Vermont. Alaska Salmon. Champagne is the most obvious example. The rules and quality control for real Champagne, from France’s Champagne region, are so strict and carefully enforced that there is literally no such thing as bad Champagne. The way it is produced assures consumers of an exceptional product every time. But in the U.S. it is legal to make wine and label it CHAMPAGNE, and it doesn’t have to be good – or even sparkling. In fact, it is usually of very poor quality.

There are lots of different kinds of Real Food, but the things they have in common is that they are usually delicious, they are usually pure, and they are almost always healthier and better for you than their Fake versions.

What Is Fake Food? 

Some Fake Food is really awful, like when you go to buy tea and get ground up weeds instead, or order tuna in a sushi restaurant and get escolar, a fish so likely to cause illness it is banned in other countries and nicknamed the “Ex-Lax fish.” This is much more common than you would think: studies have shown that consumers ordering white tuna in sushi restaurants get an inferior substitute 94% of the time.

Other Fake Foods are more subtle, taking advantage of lax labeling laws to legally trick consumers. There was a recent scandal that got a lot of media attention when it was discovered that domestic parmesan cheese, always a pale imitation of the Real thing from Italy, contained wood pulp instead of cheese. One national brand was more than 20% wood pulp. But what these stories overlooked was the fact that, unlike in Italy, it is perfectly legal for our “cheese” to be made of wood instead of milk. Consumers were outraged, and they should be, but there is nothing new about buying American Parmesan cheese and getting wood, because it is Fake across the board – and so are many other popular cheeses. Kobe beef is a great Fake Food example: because Japanese producers of Real Kobe were not able to trademark it here, it is legal for menus to call anything Kobe beef and they do –  there are just eight restaurants in the entire country serving the Real thing.”

Award-winning travel journalist Larry Olmsted is a Contributing Editor to US Airways Magazine and Cigar Aficionado Magazine and “The Great Life” columnist for Forbes.com.
Award-winning travel journalist Larry Olmsted is the author of “Real Food, Fake Food.” He is a Contributing Editor to US Airways Magazine and Cigar Aficionado Magazine and “The Great Life” columnist for Forbes.com.
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