7 Things I Learned From Reading Larry Olmsted’s Real Food, Fake Food

6 Mins Read

Us Green Queen gals are avid foodies, in the real sense of the term: what we eat and where it comes from is something we take very seriously. We strongly believe that a cornerstone of living a healthy life is eating quality food. This means we do everything we can to educate ourselves (and our readers) about what you are eating, how to find quality food and where to shop for better ingredients. We are committed to the idea of “every dollar you spend is a vote for the life and world you want” so we share as much information as we can about the companies and brands that are a cut above the rest, about the food artisans that tirelessly create real food and about the chefs that are redefining conscious sourcing. In fact, we even launched a series of dining and educational events under the #FoodWithAStory (check our Green Queen Calendar for upcoming dates in this series) moniker, so deep is our passion for telling stories about the best food.

Which is why we could not put down award-winning food journalist Larry Olmsted’s latest book Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It. The book is researched to a fault and incredibly well-written (this is an investigative journalist with a charming sense of humor and undeniable passion for eating), finishing it in a couple of days. It’s also slightly terrifying. Olmsted exposes the rampant fraud, both legal and illegal, that permeates the global food industry and does not spare us any home truths. The book stayed with us for weeks (cue us boring our family at the dinner table with rants about choosing the right olive oil and avoiding supermarket sushi). While the book is aimed specifically at a North American audience, with many facts pertaining to US food regulation and domestic food industry facts, there are many takeaways that are relevant to us here in Hong Kong. Below we share seven things we learned (and can’t unlearn!) from reading Real Food/Fake Food

fake-lobster-meatThose Lobster Rolls You Crave Are Probably Made Of Hermit Crab

Have you noticed that in the past few years, lobster has popped up everywhere? Seems every hipster sandwich spot has its own version of the lobster roll and every neighborhood joint serves lobster bisque or lobster risotto. Lobster is very trendy, and the average diner is willing to pay a lot for it. Well the lobster maths doesn’t add up. Real lobster mostly comes from Maine in the US and is rightly expensive: it’s wild caught, seasonal and limited to the local lobster population’s reproductive trends. So how is lobster everywhere? Turns out the lobster you think you are eating is actually hermit crab, a poor (and far cheaper) imitation.

Olive Oil Labels Are A Complete Racket

Since we’re banging on about great food books to read, here’s another one to add to your list: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive OilIn Real Food/Fake Food, Olmsted draws heavily on the former to illustrate how much forgery exists in the world of olive oil. Turns out, there’s no regulation behind the term “cold-pressed, ” most olive oil you buy is either rancid or cut with cheaper oils like grapeseed or both. Worse, up to 90%  “extra virgin olive oil” available on sale in the US is fake.

fake-sushiThe Tuna Sushi You’re Eating Is Not Tuna

Sushi, in the traditional Japanese sense, was never meant to be a cuisine consumed on every street corner of the globe. Turns out, much like with lobster, the tuna numbers don’t add up. There simply isn’t enough tuna to go around (and certainly not at the budget prices you are paying), and your Spicy Tuna roll is, nine times out of 10, made with color-dyed escolar, a type of snake mackerel that is well known for causing digestive issues.

It’s Likely You Have Never Actually Tasted Kobe Beef

There are only about 10 restaurants in the US that serve actual, properly traced Japanese Kobe beef, and chances are you have not been to one of them. The global numbers are similarly scarce. Most Kobe beef you are eating is fake. And just to be clear: Wagyu is not Kobe. Not even close. In the book, Olmsted painstakingly details the differences in the centuries-old rearing practices involved in raising Kobe cattle and Wagyu, now one of the mainstays of the Australian meat industry, and a type of beef that many people are willing to pay Kobe-level prices for.

wild-salmonYou Have No Idea What Fish Species You Are Buying/Ordering

In terms of regulatory environment, the seafood industry may be the worst. Sub-par labeling laws, poor traceability management, seriously unethical supply chains (poor fishermen bear the brunt of inexistent labour regulations) means unearthing the country of origin of your average fish fillet is almost impossible. This is particularly true when it comes to processed fish products (including frozen fish, prepared fish products and fast food restaurant fish). Olmsted is especially vehement on the subject of red snapper: turns out over 90% of what people think is red snapper is actually some other species of fish.

There’s No Such Thing As Authentic Truffle Flavoring

Stop buying truffle-flavored products immediately. There’s no such thing as real truffle flavor. Truffle flavoring is made in a lab, in a process similar to making perfume, and does not contain any actual truffle. Truffles are one of the most prized and expensive foods in the world, which is why so many restaurants clamor to add truffle-themed menu items they can charge a pretty penny for. But unless you see the Chef/your server shaving fresh truffle on your dish, you are getting conned.

real-food-fake-food-bookThere Is No Regulation That Honey Must Contain Only Honey

Commercial honey you buy at the supermarket is very often adulterated with high fructose corn syrup, especially if it’s from China. As Olmsted explains, one of the big problems with honey is that there is no agreed definition for honey. Can real honey be filtered? Does real honey contain pollen? Depends on who you ask. Further, whilst the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) offers a grading standard, the grading requires no official inspections and allows for added ingredients.

This post is in no way exhaustive in terms of what the book uncovers. Olmsted also discusses the fraud permeating the world of parmesan (hint: only buy DOP Parmigiano-Reggiano, the rest is fake), Champagne (thanks to shockingly lax food IP laws, US winemakers are allowed to use the term Champagne on sparkling wine not made in Champagne, France) and ground coffee (often cut with barley or chicory, basically: buy whole beans). If you want to learn more about how to ensure you are buying real food, make sure to read Olmsted’s book. He includes handy guidelines at the end of each chapter on how to choose the right foods and what some of the best purveyors of each are.

Bottom line: Real Food/Fake Food is a must-read. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for doing your homework when it comes to the food you buy and the restaurants you frequent. After all, what’s more important than what you eat? 

Image Credits: Rhoda truffle risotto by Green Queen (lead photo),  Lobster Roll Sign D’Angelo’s, 7/2016, pics by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube #Lobster #Roll #DAngelos via photopin (license), sushi photo by Pexels, fresh salmon at Granville Island Market by Green Queen, Real Food/Fake Food book cover photo courtesy of Google Images. 


  • Sonalie Figueiras

    2021 Women of Power, 2019 GEN T Honoree, V Label Global Hero, 2 x TEDx Speaker: Serial social entrepreneur & trends forecaster Sonalie Figueiras is a sustainability expert, food futurist and eco-powerhouse who has been inspiring global audiences for over a decade with practical steps on how to fight climate change. Known as the Green Queen of Asia, she is the founder and Editor in Chief of the award-winning Green Queen - the region’s first impact media platform that educates millions of readers on the connection between health, sustainability and the environment and showcases future solutions. She is also the co-founder and CEO of organic sourcing platform Ekowarehouse and climate tech SaaS Source Green, which helps consumer brands quit plastic packaging thanks to proprietary plastic reduction software. In addition, Sonalie is a global keynote speaker and an advisor to multiple mission-driven startups and NGOs, and a venture partner to several VC funds.

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