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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Real Food/Fake Food--Foodie Concerns vs. Health Concerns

When I decided to read Real Food/Fake Food  by Larry Olmsted after seeing it on my Goodreads feed, my main concern with fake food was whether my health was being endangered by it.  I learned that Larry Olmsted is what was once called a gourmet, but would now be referred to as a foodie.  His main concern is authenticity.  He wants food that is associated with a specific geographic location to have been made at that location in the traditional way.  He explains at great length why this is important.  He is not unconcerned with health, so there is some overlap.  Yet I found this book only selectively valuable.


Olmsted points out that local environment is a significant component of a food's unique nature.  So you can't produce the same food in a hothouse or a laboratory.  It also occurred to me that imported food is also not the same as the original because chemicals are often used to preserve it in transport.  This means that your best bet if you want real food is to be a locavore, and eat only what is grown in your area.   It is possible to create dishes from international cuisines using local ingredients, though substitutions may be necessary because some ingredients might not be produced locally.  This is where Olmsted's concern with authenticity comes in.  It won't taste the same as the original, but people who have never tasted the original won't know the difference.  Traveling to the traditional source of  foreign foods as Olmsted has done is a luxury that I can't afford.  So I feel that  food authenticity isn't really relevant to my life.

For example, when I eat parmesan cheese, I want it to actually be cheese.  I had heard that some producers use sawdust in their parmesan before I read this book.   Humans can't digest sawdust, so it doesn't have nutritional value for us. I also want parmesan to be cheese from cows who have not been fed antibiotics because antibiotics in food can have a serious impact on my health.  I really don't care whether it's Parmigiano-Reggiano made in Parma, Italy.  I'm sure it's wonderful, but it's highly unlikely that I will ever get to experience it at the source.

If you eat fish, the chapter on fish fraud is quite an eye opener.  I was unhappy to learn that less than half of the salmon labeled as wild caught is in fact wild.  He also says that wild tuna is usually farmed tilapia.  Farmed fish contains antibiotics which is in their feed.  Olmsted discusses the various seals which certify that fish is wild that can be trusted.  He recommends consulting the Marine Stewardship Council website.

If you eat beef, you might look for "grass fed" on the label.  Olmsted informs us that this only means that the cow ate grass at some point in its life.   If you want it to have always been fed grass, the label must say "100% grass fed".  I hadn't realized that the legal requirements for this label were that precise.  

It was interesting to read about the history of various wines.  I was fascinated to find out about the longevity of Madeira from Portugal.  It can last longer than a century due to a special heating process that prevents it from turning to vinegar.  Olmsted also tells us that the American Founding Fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira in 1776.  I did wonder how he knew this.

I was shocked that tea is faked.  You don't know what you're getting in a tea bag.  It might be anything.  I am less concerned about Darjeeling tea being from India with its seal of authenticity that Olmsted describes. I am more worried about whether my tea contains toxic ingredients. I am hoping that the label organic on tea really means something since I drink a great deal of tea.

Did you know that conventional tomatoes and bananas are gassed to ripen them faster?  I discovered this information from this book. The substance used is ethylene which is naturally occurring in apples. Organic certification prevents the use of ethylene on produce.  I actually prefer the taste and nutritional quality of bananas that still have some green on them.  Ripe bananas are too sweet for me which means that they contain more sugar.  The sugar is completely natural, but still isn't very beneficial for human health.  So I'd advise that if you want less sugar, look for bananas with some green.

Even though not every chapter in this book dealt with types of food or beverages that I ever consume, I do consider Olmsted an engaging writer.  I thought that all the content in this book was interesting.  The chapters I found most significant were extremely useful and sounded an alarm about the state of our food supply.  Let the buyer beware.   Let the buyer also read the relevant chapter in Real Food, Fake Food.


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