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How to spot fake foods

There is a flourishing trade which thrives by mislabelling cheaper food substitutes as the real thing

brunch Updated: Mar 25, 2017 18:31 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Fake foods
True soya sauce is a complex concoction with thousands of grades and varieties(Shutterstock)

When we talk about ‘fake food’ in India, we usually mean food that has been adulterated. We might refer to dal to which pebbles have been added to make up some extra weight. Or to oil which has been mixed with cheaper fuels.

But there is a flourishing global fake food industry which thrives, not by adulterating food but by mislabelling it. Or it takes cheaper food substitutes, passes them off as the real thing and then makes us pay the price of the superior product.

Ironically, luxury products – which people pay huge sums of money for – are often the easiest to fake. And snobs are the easiest to fool.

Here’s a list of foods you should be careful about.

Honey

Much of the world’s cheap honey comes from China and is produced using dodgy processes (Shutterstock)

Suddenly honey is hot. Whereas, in the old days, you just had plain old honey, you now have honey distinguished by the names of the flowers the bees were feeding on. The theory is that the pollen of those flowers gives the honey a distinctive flavour. So beekeepers will often plant only one kind of flower near their hives so that they get a mono-pollen honey.

In Australia and New Zealand, honey flavoured with the pollen of the Manuka tree is a big deal and you find it at gourmet shops around the world at high prices. So it is with high quality acacia honey and many other varieties.

In Australia and New Zealand, honey flavoured with the pollen of the Manuka tree is a big deal and you find it at gourmet shops around the world at high prices (Shutterstock)

Here’s the problem. The vast majority of all bottles of Manuka honey are fakes. The total production of Manuka honey in the world (mostly from New Zealand, but also from Australia) is under 2,000 tonnes. But over 10,000 tonnes of Manuka honey are sold in gourmet and health food shops around the world. Ordinary honey is packaged as Manuka honey and most people can’t tell the difference.

But, all packaged honeys are suspect. A few years ago, tests conducted on honey sold on US supermarket shelves showed that 75 per cent had no pollen at all – let alone fancy pollen like acacia or mulberry or whatever.

There were two possible reasons for this. The first is that much of the world’s cheap honey comes from China and is produced using dodgy processes (too much insecticide, etc.) The US banned Chinese imports, so the Chinese began using an ultra-filtration process to rid the honey of its pollen. If there is no pollen, it is hard to tell where the honey is from. This suited the Chinese who wanted to disguise its origins.

 The second is that most of us don’t really know the taste of honey. So, unscrupulous producers create a honey-like product using caramel, industrial glucose, gelatins etc. The answer is to never buy honey from a large producer no matter how fancy the packaging or the price. Buy local. And stay artisanal.

Maple syrup

Real maple syrup is mostly Canadian and always costly (Shutterstock)

Not that many Indians eat maple syrup, but this is an even bigger scam than honey. Real maple syrup is mostly Canadian (it is a Native American invention) and can be delicious. It is always costly.

But what you and I call maple syrup has never been near a maple tree. All the big multinational ‘maple syrup’ brands (Aunt Jemima, Hungry Jack, Mrs Butterworth etc.) make a product from high fructose corn syrup and flavour it with a synthetic industrial molecule called Soloton. This is sold as Pancake Syrup or (under US law) Maple Flavoured Syrup. It is disgusting and unhealthy. Do not eat it. 

Balsamic vinegar

Balsamico from Modena in Italy is one of the world’s great condiments (Shutterstock)

All chefs will tell you that balsamico from Modena in Italy is one of the world’s great condiments. It is made like fine wine from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes and aged for a minimum of 12 years in a succession of casks. A few drops (perhaps a single drop, even) can add depth and complexity to dishes.

But because real balsamic vinegar is costly, the Italians themselves have cheerfully created two bogus categories. The first, misleadingly called Aceto Balsamico di Modena, is a cheap industrial product that is sold all over the world as the real thing. The second is called condimento balsamico, a largely meaningless classification.

The industrial balsamic vinegars consist of wine vinegar with food colour, caramel and cornflour (or some other thickener). This creates a counterfeit version of the real thing and each factory can produce hundreds of litres a day. This is the stuff they offer you in fancy restaurants, not because they are trying to cheat you, but because usually, they don’t know any better. The condimento is kept in the kitchen and used by mediocre chefs to tart up their food.

Wasabi

Something like 95 per cent of the wasabi in restaurants is fake (Shutterstock)

If you have ever been to an expensive Japanese restaurant and wondered why they make such a show of shredding fresh wasabi from a root in front of you, well, there is a good reason.

They are proving to you that their wasabi is real. This is important because something like 95 per cent of the wasabi in restaurants is fake.

What is called ‘wasabi’ is a mixture of horseradish and mustard, produced in factories, to resemble the real (more expensive) thing. Real wasabi has a more ‘vegetal’ flavour, which begins to deteriorate within 15 minutes of it being shredded. It will not burn your tongue and send noxious fumes down your nostrils.

The problem is that, outside of Japan, hardly anyone knows the real flavour of wasabi. They think the industrial counterfeit is what wasabi tastes like! 

Soya sauce

You don’t need to fake soya sauce, right? It’s cheap and easily available, isn’t it? Well, yes and no.

True soya sauce is a complex concoction with thousands of grades and varieties. But yes, a perfectly acceptable light soya sauce (of the kind they give you at Chinese restaurants) is not that difficult or expensive to make.

 And yet, nearly all of the soya sauce consumed along with millions of Chinese takeout meals in the US is fake. Those little packets of soya that are a staple of American dining are made from hydrolysed vegetable protein, corn syrup and an industrial flavour molecule.

But why? Well cost, mainly. Real soya sauce takes three months to make. The fake stuff takes three days.

What about Indian soya sauce? Frankly, I don’t know. But most good restaurants will use a Thai brand (relatively cheap in Indian shops) or Kikkoman (more expensive).

I suggest you do the same.

Cream

Have you noticed how the bakery products at so many expensive five-star hotels can be so bad? One reason is that chefs sometimes scrimp on real ingredients because they reckon that Indians can’t tell the difference. I was shocked to discover a couple of years ago that one of India’s most famous hotels encouraged chefs to use soya cream rather than real cream. (The situation has been set right now, I’m glad to say.)

 Why would a pastry chef not want to use real cream, one of the essentials of his trade?

 Well, because soya cream makes things easier. You can add any vegetable fat (i.e. oil) to increase its fat content (real dairy cream has 30 per cent and double cream is really 50 per cent fat). Then, you get a cream that does not collapse in warm rooms and lasts longer on dessert buffets and at pastry shops.

How does it taste? Pretty awful. But look at it this way. For years and years, the hotel in question made do with soya cream. So perhaps customers really can’t tell the difference.

Truffle oil

Truffle oil usually has nothing to do with real truffles; a tiny proportion is made by infusing truffles into good olive oil (Shutterstock)

I am a bit of a bore on this subject, so a brief note. Truffle oil usually has nothing to do with real truffles. A tiny proportion is made by infusing truffles into good olive oil. But this is expensive, so something like 90 per cent of all truffle oil is made by adding a molecule derived from the petroleum industry to any cheap oil. It does not smell or taste like truffles (it might even make you sick), but it is so ubiquitous that many people now think that this is what a truffle should taste like.

From HT Brunch, March 26

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