Real Food, Fake Food, by Larry Olmsted (audio)

Subtitled: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It

Let me start by saying what this book isn’t. This is not about so-called Frankenfoods. It’s not about Lucky Charms or Velveeta or Pepsi. When we eat those sorts of foods, we know they’re fake and highly processed. This book is about a different kind of fakery, the kind that:

  • legally and silently “enhances” products (think corn syrup added to honey without being on the label)
  • pretends to be something it’s not (think tuna in both stores and restaurants actually being a fish called escolar, unrelated to tuna at all and potentially poisonous)
  • takes the name of something higher-quality and/or region-specific and erroneously uses it (think California “Champagne” or Kraft “Parmesan”)

The book tackles government regulations inside and outside the US, and discusses the way food fraud has made its way into just about everything in our supermarket. Some of the main foods and worst offenders discussed are wine, olive oil, seafood, cheese, beef, tea…and you know, I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Six years ago, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Notably, Real Food, Fake Food directs readers to Omnivore if they want to read about the fakery practices prevalent in processed food.) It changed the way I thought about eating, and definitely changed my nutrition for the better. (Hm. It’s about time for a reread, I think…) I love reading about food, food history, and the food industry, and while this book isn’t Omnivore, I did learn a lot about food that make me think. I don’t always agree with the author on certain kinds of “fake” foods. There’s an inherent class bias in saying “Only eat Parmesan from Parma, and if you can’t find it or afford it, simply don’t have it!” Parmesan-style cheeses don’t bother me, as long as they’re real cheese, which of course isn’t always the case. Other fraudulent food practices – as defined by the author – do really bother me.

When you can’t tell the difference between pure honey and honey adulterated with corn syrup and other sweeteners, that’s a problem. When cheaper, lower-quality, possibly-lethal fish is substituted for everything from tuna to salmon to lobster, that’s a problem. When products are imported from parts of the world that allow slave labor and US-banned hormones/antibiotics in the production of those foods, that’s a problem. When loose (or non-existent) labeling laws allow chemically-created oil that’s never seen an olive to be called 100% grade A extra virgin olive oil, that’s a problem.

I’m a big fan of regulation and food protections. You know, the kind our current government is trying to cut as “unimportant” and “unnecessary.” I know that corporations, far removed from the consumer, do what they can to cut costs and meet market demand. I also know that people ought to be smart enough to know that their fast food lobster sub sandwiches have never been near an actual lobster, because lobster is an expensive item for a good reason: it’s extremely time-consuming and provides little meat yield per item. However, it’s too easy to be duped when your can of tuna claims to be tuna, or when your tea looks like tea when it’s really made up of something unrelated, or when any kind of rice in the world can be called “basmati” with no repercussions. As a wine drinker/lover, I know the trash brands and would never get “Champagne” from Korbel, but I didn’t know some of the other common fraud practices in wine production/distribution. Thanks to this book, I now know what to look for. I recognize authentication seals on certain bottles, and I recognize specific third-party authentication seals on seafood (yay Aldi for being excellent about its seafood products!), and I have good ideas about how to avoid other food frauds.

While there were some grey areas and class-bias problems to this book – the former of which is actually pointed out by the author up front – I feel that this is an important one to read. I don’t have tons of money (especially after three cross-country moves in three years! not to mention three teen boys…), but for the first time in all my years of food-reading, I’ve begun thinking about sustainably-sourced meat products. This is something I’d dismissed before not because I didn’t want to care, but because I simply didn’t have the money to afford those higher-end products. (Let’s not talk about vegetarianism. I’m an omnivore by philosophy and medical need.) Now, though, my mind has shifted into a different mode, similar to when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that will (hopefully) lead to choices that are better for the animals, the environment, and my family. (I say hopefully because I live in a tiny area with very few choices, and I don’t even know if what I’m looking for is possible to get a hold of here.)

I read this book on audio, but have put the print version on my wishlist. There are many places throughout that list ways to check if what you’re buying is really what you’re buying, and while I remember some from the audio, I really want a physical copy to refer to. Multiple reviews on GoodReads mention that the written version is riddled with copy errors. While I hope that’s mostly e-copies and ARCs, I wanted to put that warning out here to others who might be interested in reading the book. This wasn’t a particular problem I had to deal with, but print-readers might come across it.

Performance: This audiobook was read by Jonathan Yen, and was my first experience with this particular narrator. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the performance. Yen reads the book similar to shows I’ve seen on HGTV or Food Network, with exaggerated vocal inflections like a cross between a game show and a shocker news program. He also generously used accents for both real and hypothetical people, often when no accent was needed, and the accents were as exaggerated as everything else. This latter point is one of my pet peeves, so obviously this didn’t go over well for me. That’s not to say someone else wouldn’t love the audio version – I know this is a very popular style of vocal acting! – it just didn’t work for me.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2017, Adult, Prose and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Real Food, Fake Food, by Larry Olmsted (audio)

  1. Word Lily says:

    Ugh. I’ve heard of several of the things you mention, but I’m interested in what you read is steering your meat choices.

    A food/eating book that just came out that I’m interested to read is Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf. In it, he talks about (based on his instagram) how to personalize your diet so it works for *your body*, which is unique.


    • Amanda says:

      Learning about the way hormones and antibiotics affect not just the animals, but our bacterial ecosystem and our personal health, really made me wonder just how many of the various health problems I suffer from can in part be contributed to this kind of thing. There wasn’t a whole lot in it, but more than books I’ve read in the past that have simply said “buy better meat because it’s better for you!” without any real science to back it up. I know that I still can’t afford to eat perfectly, but I thought I’d start with a few small changes and see how they affect me, and then work my way up over time.

      Thanks for the book recommendation! I’ve added it to my investigate list and will see if either of my library resources has it. 🙂


  2. Michelle says:

    This sounds fascinating. I love books about the food industry as well!

    (Regarding the Parm thing – my understanding is that true Parm from the actual region is the only cheese allowed to be called Parmisiano Reggiano, which is its true name. If what you are eating is called Parmesan, it is not from Italy. Also, true Parmisiano Reggiano has the name stamped on the rind. I try not to use the fake stuff because the cheese from Italy is absolutely divine, so I am always looking at the rind to make sure I am buying the real thing.)


    • Amanda says:

      From what the book said, it’s the only thing allowed to be called that in Italy and throughout much of the world, but in the US, there are no rules defining what American producers can put on the labels of “Parmesan.” But you’re right about the rind – if only more people knew that! – and there are other ways to tell. I’m not sure I’ve ever had real Parmesan, or at least, real Parmesan before it becomes a hard cheese. Apparently it’s supposed to be semi-hard!


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