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Is that food fake or real? One man wants to help us learn how to tell the difference.

Truffles.Mehdi FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images

Travel and food writer Larry Olmsted has enjoyed some of the greatest foods the world has to offer: prosciutto di Parma, Maryland blue crab cakes, Parmigiano Reggiano, Kobe beef. In his new book, “Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It,” Olmsted shows how lax regulations, artfully deceptive wording, and outright fraud can mean that when we think we’re eating such foods, what’s on our plate is something quite different. Olmsted writes about how to separate the real food from the fake everywhere from the grocery store to the gourmet shop to the gastropub. “I love olive oil. I love Parmesan cheese. I love meat. And I want to celebrate those foods,” the author says. Olmsted lives in Vermont and teaches at Dartmouth College.

Larry OlmstedAllison Olmsted

Q. How do you differentiate between real and fake food?


A. The obvious example I like to use is that of the North Atlantic lobster, commonly called the Maine lobster. If you get a whole lobster out of a tank or in a restaurant, it’s as real as food gets. Nothing else can be substituted for it. A lobster is a lobster. If you go a step further and order lobster ravioli or lobster bisque or lobster stew, some restaurants put lobster in that, some put some lobster in it, some put no lobster in it. If you get lobster ravioli with no lobster, suddenly that’s fake food.

Q. How else can foods be faked?

A. There are legal ways and illegal ways. Illegal would be if you buy a jar of honey and you get a jar of colored liquid with sugar in it. That’s more prevalent in processed foods where you can’t really see all the ingredients, like the European horsemeat scandal. They were swapping it into lasagna TV dinners where you can’t really recognize it. I also talk a lot about geographic indications — things that have a name or trademark that’s protected in most of the world but is not legally protected in the United States, like Champagne. When they do perception studies, if you ask Americans what Champagne is, they almost always say it’s a sparkling wine that can only come from France. That belief is so embedded that it’s easy to deceive people with domestic wine that’s labeled Champagne. It’s legal. The same for Kobe beef and Parmesan cheese and any of these other geographically protected products. It’s legal, but I consider it to be fake because it’s a copy of what you think you’re getting, almost always of considerably lower quality.


Q. Is that limited to expensive foods?

A. No, but the margins are certainly higher. At the high end, if you can sell really cheap steak as Kobe beef for $350 a steak, there’s a lot of margin in there. High-end products or luxury products are almost always victimized, but if you look at a list of the most adulterated foods, they include plenty of staples like coffee and juice and honey that are not particularly expensive.

Q. You say that truffle oil is almost always fake. Why is that?

A. If you chop up some garlic and put it in olive oil, it leeches flavor into the oil. If you chop up truffles and put it in oil, it doesn’t change the flavor of the oil. That’s what people think that truffle oil is — oil infused by truffles. It’s not. It’s a laboratory-made product that is artificial. It’s made the same way as perfume. If you buy a bottle of truffle oil — any oil, any prices — you’re not going to see truffles [on the ingredient list]. You’re going to see artificial truffle flavor, natural truffle flavor, or both artificial and natural truffle flavor. The end result is that it doesn’t really taste like truffles. But nonetheless lots and lots of restaurants use it. That’s a big red flag. If I look at your menu and you have truffle fries, I’m suspect of everything you serve.


Q. How is grass-fed beef different from what we might expect?

A. The word “grass-fed” really doesn’t mean anything. You can loosely use it if the cow had eaten grass. And all cows in the United States are fed grass at some times in their lives. The USDA has another label, “100 percent grass-fed,” which actually means what it says: that they only ate grass.

Q. Do you have any general rules for avoiding fake foods?

A. The more processed the food is, the more you have to worry about it. The biggest rule to me is to look at the ingredients. You want to really avoid natural and artificial flavors. That’s a big loophole for not listing stuff. There are hundreds of products that can be listed under that but not described. I say in the book to shop more and cook more, but I don’t expect everybody to make chicken stock from scratch or bake their own bread. But buy the components as much as you can, rather than the finished products.


Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at