Like any profitable trade, the food industry is well-versed in bait-and-switch tactics.
Large food processors, distributors, and conglomerates are constantly looking for ways to cut costs, and unfortunately for consumers, one of the quickest methods is also the sneakiest: swapping genuine articles for artificial, highly processed, or inferior ingredients that mimic the real thing—with a result that’s more Frankenstein-like, and less farm-to-table.
If you want to avoid being shortchanged by products that allege to be something they really aren’t, then you need to equip yourself with some #KnowledgeDarts. Look out for these foods that are easily (and often commonly) faked—and find out how to spot whether or not you’re eating the real deal.
Pork Bung or Calamari?
Two years ago, This American Life documented a farmer visiting a processing plant where boxes labeled “artificial calamari” turned out to be hog’s rectums, and in a side-by-side taste test, none of the show’s producers could tell the difference between pork bung, as it’s known, and true squid. (Doesn’t everything taste the same once it’s been breaded, fried, and dunked in marinara?) Thankfully, the producers never uncovered any instances of pork bung being passed off as real calamari in American restaurants, and USDA representatives have come forward saying they aren’t aware of any products on the U.S. market labeled as “imitation calamari.” So unless you’re eating really cheap calamari somewhere outside the United States, you can probably rest easy. (Photo: stu_spivack/Flickr)
Whitefish or Crab?
A California roll is purported to be avocado, cucumber, sesame, and crab. But order one at any run-of-the-mill sushi joint today, and you’re more likely to get a cheap variation made with crab sticks—imitation crab meat made by pulverizing white fish such as pollack and binding it with egg whites, wheat starch, and hydrolyzed soy. The resultant fish mush is shaped into sticks, while its exterior is dyed to resemble the meat of actual crab legs. That solid seafood mass with a day-glo red exterior? It’s a dead giveaway. (Photo: Samson Loo/Flickr)
Horseradish or Wasabi?
While we’re on the subject of sushi, we’ve got more bleak news to share with you: More than 90 percent of the “wasabi” you get in Japanese restaurants doesn’t actually contain a trace of wasabi. Real wasabi is a rhizome that’s prized for both its roots and stalks, costs around $75 per pound, and is a highly perishable product that’s usually grated to order. Let’s just call a spade a spade—what you’re really eating is dried horseradish and mustard flour with a hefty dose of green dye. (Photo: Half Moon Bay Wasabi)
Tapenade or Truffle Oil?
If it sounds too good to be true, they say, then it probably is. Too bad chefs didn’t apply that logic to truffle oil when it exploded onto the culinary scene in the 1990s. Can the exquisite perfume of the white truffle, which can easily command as much as a dollar per gram, truly be captured in an 8-ounce oil that costs less than $10? Not a chance. That truffle oil in your basket of fries is probably made with lab-synthesized 2,4-dithiapentane, a petroleum-based chemical compound that’s naturally present in real truffles. Or, if they really take you for a fool, olive tapenade will do the trick. (Photo: thesilverchef/Instagram)
Corn Syrup or Maple?
Real maple syrup is harvested seasonally from the sap of a maple tree and follows a strict grading scale based on color. Anything labeled “maple-flavored syrup,” “pancake syrup,” or “table syrup,” on the other hand, is most likely high-fructose corn syrup blended with chemical compounds like sotolon and thickeners like cellulose gum. “Pancake syrup” wasn’t always a bad word. When Log Cabin invented it in 1887, it was a blend of maple and corn syrup that was billed as an inexpensive alternative during tough times. But by the 1970s, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s, and even Log Cabin itself had replaced maple entirely with a slew of additives and artificial ingredients. (Photo: Heather Katsoulis/Flickr)
Escolar or White Tuna?
White tuna, or albacore, is prized by the seafood industry for its light color and mild-flavored flesh. But a 2013 study by an Ocean preservation organization found that 84% of the time, fish marketed as white tuna was actually escolar, a cheap species of mackerel that’s banned in Japan and Italy because of its gastrointestinal side effects. (In case you were wondering, its high wax ester content can cause “prolonged, oily anal leakage” when eaten in quantities over six ounces.) If you must get your hands on white tuna, buy direct, ask lots of questions, and consume at your own risk. (Photo: stu_spivack/Flickr)
Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil or Whipped Cream?
Hate to break it to you, but the whipped cream on that French silk pie you ordered is likely anything but. Until a few years ago, the most well-known brand of imitation whipped cream, Cool Whip, didn’t even contain dairy. Today, its formula includes milk and cream, but hydrogenated vegetable oil, corn syrup, xanthan and guar gums, and artificial flavoring are still part of the equation. If your whipped cream doesn’t start deflating after a few minutes at room temperature, it’s a sure sign it’s filled with stabilizing chemicals. (Photo: Shari’s Berries/Flickr)
Fauxberries or Blueberries?
The greatest threat to fruit isn’t the rise of the low-carb diet—it’s fake fruit. Foods like imitation blueberries actually exist, thanks to a concoction of dextrose, palm kernel oil, flour, citric acid, cellulose gum, artificial flavors, and artificial red and blue dyes. Want to avoid falling down a fake berry hole? Then avoid labels of pancake starters, corn muffin mixes, and other dry goods that say they’re made “with imitation blueberries” (in fine print, of course). (Photo: cannedtuna/Flickr)
Soybean Oil or Butter?
It’s okay to enjoy a bag of buttered popcorn while watching your favorite flick, just as long as you realize the buttery topping on your popped snack is about as real as Nick Minaj’s butt. (That doppelganger is probably just coconut oil and hydrogenated soybean oil blended with some diacetyl for butter flavor and beta carotene thrown in to achieve a golden color. There’s also gluten lurking in there, too.) Or maybe it’s not: Diacetyl has been linked to Alzheimer’s and respiratory disease. (Photo: veggiefrog/Flickr)
Chocolate Candy or Milk Chocolate?
At its most elemental, chocolate is a blend of cocoa beans, cocoa solids, and cocoa butter. But several years ago, products like Whatchamacallit, Milk Duds, and Mr. Goodbar swapped cocoa butter, which gives chocolate its creamy texture, for less expensive vegetable oil. Removing cocoa butter violates the FDA’s definition of milk chocolate, so many of the chocolate-coated candies that used to be labeled “milk chocolate” now say “chocolate candy.” (Photo: Hershey’s)