That restaurant cut of Kobe beef that set you back $100? According to author Larry Olmsted, it’s just a plain old steak. “There is no doubt that almost all of what is sold in this country as Kobe beef is fake,” Olmsted says.
In his new book, Real Food / Fake Food, Olmsted explains that, until 2012, it was mostly illegal for U.S. restaurants and retailers to import and sell real Japanese Kobe beef. Since the ban was lifted, just three restaurants—212 Steakhouse in Manhattan, the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, and Teppanyaki Ginza Sumikawa in Honolulu—have received approval from Japan’s Kobe Beef Association to import and sell the real thing.
So unless you were recently dining at one of those three spots, any Kobe beef you’ve bought in the U.S. was probably what Olmsted calls “Faux-be beef.”
And that’s just the start. His book provides a long list of the counterfeit or contaminated foods that litter U.S. menus and marketplaces. “People think there are regulations in place to protect them,” he says. But in most cases, the existing U.S. laws either allow blatant deceptions or make it almost impossible to hold lying restaurants or retailers accountable.
Here, according to Olmsted’s book, are five more of the most common fake foods you’re buying.
This expensive fish is pretty much always faked, Olmsted says. So what are you getting when you buy or order red snapper? “It has many different imitators, including mercury-rich tilefish, which is on the FDA’s do-not-eat list for sensitive groups such as children and pregnant women,” Olmsted writes. He recommends avoiding red snapper altogether.
“Your odds of getting served real white tuna in a restaurant are about the same as hitting zero/double zero on a Vegas roulette wheel, which is to say, not good,” Olmsted writes. You’re more likely being served escolar, which is sometimes called “Ex-lax fish” because it tends to give people the runs, he says. Again, just avoid this fish.
If you buy the pre-shredded type in a canister, your parm is likely loaded with additives—including a plant byproduct called cellulose. But even that expensive wedge of parmesan is probably not true Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, Olmsted says.
U.S. food regulators allow cheese to be labeled as “Parmesan” even if they don’t come from the Italian city of Parma, where the real McCoy is produced. Look for labels that actually say “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” and that feature the European Union’s “protected designation of origin” (PDO) seal of authenticity.
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S., but most of it comes from Southeast Asia fish farms that are widely known to use banned or unregulated antibiotics, Olmsted says. He only eats wild caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. (But even then, you’re trusting that your restaurant or seafood store is shooting you straight about your shrimp’s provenance, he says.)
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
True extra virgin olive oil—the stuff linked to all those amazing heart health benefits—is basically non-existent on most U.S. supermarket shelves, Olmsted says. The label term “extra virgin” is unregulated in the U.S., so you’re often buying an adulterated, rancid version of the real thing. That’s if you get olive oil at all. Olmsted discovered some extra virgin olive oil is actually just colored and flavored soybean oil.
You have a better chance of getting true extra virgin olive oil from California producers and high-end specialty stores, he writes. You’ll know the real deal by its incredible aroma and flavor, which you can’t miss if you’re used to the fake stuff.
Olmsted’s book is packed with more examples of counterfeit foods and tips to find authentic eats. Generally, he says Whole Foods and, surprisingly, big-box stores like Costco tend to be honest and transparent about their products. That doesn’t mean everything they sell is legit. But if you read labels carefully, you’ll see accurate info about what’s in a product and where it was made, he says.