Is Your Olive Oil Really Olive Oil?

Larry Olmsted's new book reveals the surprising truth about counterfeit foods.

Jul 7, 2016
Outside Magazine
Is Your Olive Oil Really Olive Oil?

Larry Olmsted's new book is equal parts foodie chronicle and investigative exposé.    Photo: Hannah McCaughey

A decade ago, scary books about food were trendy. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food ­Nation taught us about the nasty business of greasy chain fare, while Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma examined industrial production. At the time, those books were necessary. The disconnect between factory and plate was far greater than it is now. These days most consumers have a better understanding of food. Still, much of what we think of as quality actually isn’t. 

Larry Olmsted’s Real Food/Fake Food ($28, Algonquin) turns the lens on the way products are sold and the obfuscation still present in the industry. The book is equal parts foodie chronicle and investigative 
exposé. Olmsted, a travel writer by trade, ­reveals some of the worst culprits of faked goods—wine, tea, and seafood—via firsthand nar­rative reporting. These include everything from ­rip-offs of specialties like extra-virgin olive oil and Kobe beef to dangerous additives like sawdust and twigs. To temper the muckraking, Olmsted includes recipes that feature real food at the end of each chapter. (Try our favorite below.) 

Unlike the works of Pollan and Schlosser, Real Food/Fake Food is less treatise than guidebook, showing readers how to navigate an increasingly complex food system. We spoke with Olmsted to get the SparkNotes. 

Meat Is Complicated 

Grass-fed beef is better for you than grain-fed, but as Olmsted explains, a lot of the beef sold as grass-fed is actually finished on grain. If you’re unsure how your beef is finished, Olmsted recommends buying bison, which is always raised free-range, and New Zealand lamb, which is all grass-finished.

True Olive Oil Is Harvested 

Extra-virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants and aids with digestion. Unfortunately, a lot of what Americans consume isn’t extra-virgin at all. Some reports estimate that 80 percent of EVOO doesn’t qualify—it’s often diluted with less expensive or lower-grade olive oil, or with old oil that wouldn’t pass the extra-virgin standard after bottling. The easiest way to tell if your olive oil is extra-virgin is to look for a harvest date. Also, Chile and Australia have the strictest standards for weeding out adulteration. 

Get Real

Only Parmigiano-Reggiano from the town of Parma, which European law classifies as a “protected designation of origin,” qualifies as the cheese you think you know. Everything else is a crude imitation. Wine, balsamic vinegar, and hundreds of other specialty foods also fall prey to mislabeling, duplicitous marketing, or poor production. But the authentic stuff, when you can find it, is amazing.

Restaurants Lie

Organic, free-range, natural—these terms are backed by USDA and FDA regulations to ensure the integrity of various storebought foods. Restaurant fare, how­ever, is “almost entirely absolved of these protections,” says Olmsted. “Whatever adjec­tives they use can be lies without breaking any laws.” And high-end restaurants are just as likely to defraud you as a fast-food joint. Unfortunately, the best advice Olmsted is able to give: “Be skeptical.”

Never Eat Shrimp

It’s the most popular seafood in the United States, but it’s also one of the nastiest things you can eat. “The vast major­ity of the shrimp we get is farmed and imported, of nebulous geographic origin, and very likely raised in disgusting conditions with lots of drugs that aren’t approved for human consumption,” Olmsted says. 

Bistecca alla Fiorentina Recipe

A classic Tuscan dish. Florentines will insist it requires a steak from the local Chianina cattle breed, but any good beef will go with any great olive oil.

Serves 2 to 4
  1. Pick out a quality two- or three-pound, two-inch-thick porterhouse or ­T-bone steak. Let it come to room temperature for 45 to 60 minutes.
  2. While preheating the grill to high, season the steak liberally with coarse sea salt and fresh-ground pepper.
  3. Cook for five minutes on each side for rare (the Tuscan way) or seven to eight minutes per side for medium-rare to medium. The outside should be well crusted.
  4. Slice both sides of the steak off the center bone, then carve into perpendicular slices, about a half-inch thick.
  5. Drizzle generously with extra-­virgin olive oil (Olmsted likes McEvoy Ranch) and serve.

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