Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It, by Larry Olmsted

It’s a rare book to make me consider plowing under my yard in favor of becoming my own farmer, but this book has nearly done it. Larry Olmsted outlines a world of faux food, imported poisons, and scams available in supermarkets and restaurants near you, everything from cheeses to wines and on into non-foods sold as food.

Olmsted begins by showing the painstaking craftsmanship behind some of the finest foods, opening with the creation of true Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Parma region of Italy. Milk taken directly from the farm to the cheese maker, with no milk taken older than 12 hours. The cheese begun almost immediately in molds that have to be specially made to foil counterfeiters, kept in storage and turned for years until it reaches perfection. The American answer has been to create cheeses that are more wood pulp than milk, put it in cans, and sell it as Parmesan cheese.  It’s done with little regard for either the consumer or the farmers and craftsmen whose families have been making a phenomenal (and pricey) cheese for centuries.

And this is one of the less frustrating stories in the book, which is filled with reports of “olive oil” that is often no more than flavored and dyed peanut oil (he quotes and mentions the book Extra-Virginity which tells of some oils so poor that they should be used for lubricating hinges rather than food), of shrimp sold as lobster, of poisonous fugu sold as monkfish.

These horror stories don’t even touch on the downright thefts in the marketplace. Whatever is being sold as red snapper at your store is 94% likely to be another fish. White tuna is almost as bad. He details restaurants and meat companies marketing Kobe beef from Japan, even during periods when it was illegal to import any beef from that country.

He also goes into detail on how wines like true champagne require grapes and growing areas that are controlled by the French government. Nonetheless the US government has refused to sign or follow economic treaties, allowing some companies to sell a sparkling wine from different grapes and using different processes but still labeling their wine as Champagne.

Some of the problems come from our government, including the FDA and USDA using careless or nonexistent inspection procedures. Some are international bait-and-switch artists who may export contaminated foods to the US, moving their operations to a different country if they are caught.

It’s a frightening story, but Olmsted does offer some solutions. Don’t by some things, check labels on others, buy from some responsible vendors that he specifies in the book. It’s worth the frustrations of the reports to get a sense of just what is passing as food and for the motivation to do some careful label research on the items you find in the store.