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The Rise of Fake Foods: How Common Ingredients Hide Behind Exotic Labels

Published: May 15, 2024
Many new products gracing supermarket shelves in the U.S. are not always what they are touted to be. (Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

Published with permission from LuxuryWeb Magazine

The unprecedented affluence of the early 21st century, coupled with the newfound willingness of the American public to explore the pleasures of foods and fresh products from other countries, has led restaurant chefs and home cooks alike to offer interesting and exotic meals to their guests — meals that were unknown to the U.S. market just 20 years ago.

However, many of these new products gracing pantries across America are not always what they are touted to be. This is not the fault of the buyers, as many have never seen or experienced the real thing. The advertising and marketing industries are largely to blame for creating grand designations for lowly ingredients, renaming them and selling them at high prices.

(Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

Take, for example, what appears on restaurant menus and in fish markets as Chilean Sea Bass. The fish is neither Chilean (in Britain, it is presented as Australian Sea Bass) nor is it a sea bass. Known to ichthyologists as Patagonian Toothfish, it is harvested in the chilly waters of the Antarctic. In the fish markets of Chile and Brazil, it is actually a very inexpensive catch.

And speaking of South America, many diners pay top dollar in East Coast restaurants and churrascarias for “Argentine” beef that supposedly comes from hormone-free cattle grazing in the Argentinean pampas.

(Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

A few years ago, Argentina’s populist government enacted a sweeping ban on beef exports to keep domestic prices low. What is presented as “Argentinean steaks” is, in reality, probably beef imported from Australia, New Zealand, or even the feedlots of Texas.

Many other ingredients are being replaced by inexpensive stand-ins. Wasabi powder, for example, is a staple in America’s over 7,500 sushi bars. It has also started appearing on non-Japanese restaurant menus in dishes like “Wasabi Crusted Salmon” or “Grouper with Wasabi Sauce.”

(Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

Much of the wasabi sold in the US is actually powdered horseradish, crushed mustard seed, and food coloring, retailing for about $10 per pound. In contrast, real grated wasabi root, which has a much more subtle taste, retails for about $140 per pound in the US.

(Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

Prized “Blue Point” oysters are rarely actually raised in the waters of Blue Point, New York. Otherwise, they would have become extinct long ago. Flounder is commonly sold as sole at twice the price. Rounds of shark meat cut with a small cookie cutter have been passed off as scallops, and undersized sea scallops are often served as Nantucket Bay scallops, a far more expensive ingredient.

If you are eating Camembert, Brie, or Roquefort in the USA, they are probably not imported. US law prohibits the sale of soft, unpasteurized cheeses aged for less than 60 days, with a few exceptions. These exceptions permit the importation and sale of Italian fresh cheeses made from unpasteurized milk that has not been aged for more than 60 days.

(Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

Groupe Lactalis, a leading European dairy marketer, sells Roquefort under the Société Roquefort brand; if you look very carefully at the Roquefort back label, you will see, in small type, “Product of France made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk.” So that Roquefort is genuine. However, on the back label of the Joan of Arc Double Cream Brie we recently purchased, you will see, in very small type, the information that the product is actually made in Lincolnshire, IL, and is not imported from France.

Another commonly faked product is balsamic vinegar. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is aged for at least 12 and as many as 25 years in wood casks and must bear an official government seal from Reggio or Modena. It can cost as much as $80 an ounce. It has a full body, rich density, and a very characteristic bouquet. It is best used uncooked as dressing for antipasti, first courses, desserts, and crudités.

(Image: Manos Angelakis/LuxuryWeb Magazine)

A less expensive variation, Condimento Pregiato (100 percent cooked grape must), aged for only the twelve minimum years, is used in lightly cooked sauces. “Must” refers to the natural, freshly pressed grape juice that is eventually fermented and transformed into wine.

A good balsamic should be kept away from heat and light and stored at room temperature, no higher than 68°F. At your local supermarket, you will probably find a product sold as “balsamic vinegar,” which is actually red-wine vinegar treated with caramelized sugar.

The Barilla company imports an excellent authentic balsamic vinegar under the Academia brand, very aromatic and with decreased acidity, available in many supermarkets.

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