Real Food/Fake Food: Are you eating real food?

Larry Olmstead did not write the book I was expecting when I read its title, Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can do About It. Real food has taken on the meaning of a food that is pure, whole and unprocessed. Many of the real foods described in this book are actually processed products with great heritage and high standards. A more appropriate title for this book would be something like Authentic Food/Inauthentic Food: How Too Much of What You Eat Isn’t Really What It Pretends To Be. I don’t know about you, but I would probably never bought the book if that was its title. Before I go any further in this review, I must confess that I am not a foodie and that Mr. Olmstead is. Thus, what really matters to him does not really matter that much to me.

The main message of the book is that we associate certain names of foods, particularly those that take the name of a city or specific region of a country, with premium quality. If that item is replaced with something else of lower quality, we are being ripped off. I am in complete agreement with the author on his general premise. One of the two major reasons leading to the formation of the FDA was to prevent food fraud. Among the products he lists are Prosciutto di Parma ham, extra-virgin olive oil and Kobe beef. He also asserts that most of red snapper sold at restaurants and supermarkets is fake. That food fraud exists is undeniable, partly due to the lack of effective laws and regulations protecting such products. I do think that he exaggerates the extent of the fraud and particularly the effects of such fraud on our health. I suspect that the biggest impact of food fraud perpetrated on the American public is paying too much for a product that is not what it claims to be.

One of the reasons he is adamant about specific regions producing the very best of a specific product is terroir, which is almost impossible to translate but roughly describes the contribution of the land as affected by its soil, local climate and other factors specific to a defined geographical region. In an era of rapid global climate change and urban sprawl, I wonder just how meaningful terroir will be in the next few years. I do believe that many products like Scotch whiskey, Roquefort cheese and Manuka honey are able to maintain their premium status by a clever mix of long-standing tradition with advancing technology, and a dedication to high quality standards that are carefully defined and stringently monitored. Olmstead meticulously describes such details with reference to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Champagne.

And yet, to buy into his argument we have to give up such common names as parmesan cheese, which should only be produced in Parma, Italy. When should a term be protected and when does it become generic? Olmstead would be satisfied with naming all of these pretenders as “parmesan-style” cheese or “imitation-parmesan” cheese. Too me that is going too far. Although he wants tougher standards for these specialized products, he doesn’t seem to have any empathy for dairy producers who think the term “milk” should be reserved for fluids coming from lactating mammals and not protein extractions of soybeans, rice, almonds, or other plants. Imitation milk from almonds anyone? He also doesn’t seem to be too concerned about bologna or Vienna sausages which also have a geographic heritage but not the status of a cheese or wine.

The author is very concerned about getting the real thing when he pays big bucks to get it, and he has done his homework to ensure that he is not being cheated. Many of us who can afford to buy a premium product expect it to be what it says on the label or the menu, and we are less likely to investigate its authenticity. I certainly agree that we should be able to expect authenticity. And yet, shouldn’t it be about satisfaction and the eating experience? If my expectations are met when considering a price for a product in the store or an item on the menu, isn’t that enough? As I said earlier, I’m not a foodie. I just appreciate a good meal, and I refuse to repeat an event where the promise offered was not worth the price I paid.

It is not until the very last chapter, “In Conclusion” that it becomes apparent that Olmstead also considers most processed food found in America as fake food. Here he deviates from the themes he so carefully researches, develops and presents in the book up to this point only to parrot the common accusations we find from contemporary food pundits. This view holds that processed foods are filled with unwanted chemicals, too many ingredients and unhealthy offerings. The author also descends into a diatribe on the FDA, an organization he expresses some sympathy for in his earlier chapters. Rather than a conclusion which generally brings together the main points in the book to hone in on the main message and where we go from here, the chapter appears to be an addendum to include what most food pundits today consider as real and fake foods. From my perspective this last chapter diminishes the impact of the book rather than enhancing it. During the next few weeks, I’ll explore the whole concept of real and not-so-real foods on this site.

Although I have some reservations about Real Food/Fake Food, I admire Larry Olmstead’s passion for food authenticity which comes through clearly in this well-written book. As a non-foodie, it seems that his attitude is elitist at times, like slamming the foods and companies who provide inexpensive foods to those of us unable or unwilling to pay for top-of-the-line foods. I do admit, however, that he sent me scurrying to my refrigerator and pantry shelves to see if I have real or fake goods. I also admit that I will never view a package of parmesan or feta cheese in the same light again. Anyone who has ever wondered whether that very special food that they paid a seemingly outrageous price for was the real thing needs to read this book. At the end of most chapters, the author provides some clues as to how to distinguish real from fake in a specific food category and shares some of his personal recipes. Now I need to go back to figure out how to rename that eggplant dish I prepared for my house-guests last month that drew such raves from them.

Next week: Real food and edible foodlike substances

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