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What’s really in the food you buy?

Good Read: A look at the latest books on healthy living

health and fitness Updated: Dec 11, 2016 09:52 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Olive oil, if its not extra-virgin, could contain just 10% of the healthy oil you think you’re getting.
Olive oil, if its not extra-virgin, could contain just 10% of the healthy oil you think you’re getting.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It

Larry Olmsted

Rs 1152.87 (Hardcover); Rs 786.25 (Kindle)

Is the honey in your tea from a hive or is it coloured syrup from a factory? Are your spices laced with bran? Is your ground coffee pure arrabiata or a tasteless chicory mix?

Adulteration is rife and labels can be misleading. A lot of the packaged food we get has artificial substitutes that look like the original ingredients but insidiously wreck our health. The result it that you worry about whether you’re eating what you think you paid for.

Real Food, Fake Food helps readers negotiate labels and read between the lines to spot the real thing from the not. Olive oil, parmesan cheese, fish fillets, red wine; it would seem the more scrumptious the victual, the more likely it is to be a sham, writes Larry Olmsted, pointing out that in 2016, Interpol seized a mind-boggling 10,000 metric tones and 1 million litres of “hazardous fake food and drink … in operations across 57 countries.”

Among the seizures were 4 tonnes of meat illegally imported to Thailand from India. Further investigations unravelled an illicit network operating across 10 provinces, from where officers recovered and destroyed more than 30 tonnes of illegal beef and buffalo meat unfit for human consumption.

The other products included wine, whisky, vodka and peanuts repackaged and labelled as pine nuts, potentially life-threatening for people with a peanut allergy.

You learn that to get the taste, aroma and many health benefits of olive oil, you must buy bottles and tins labelled “extra virgin”, which means the oil is made from fresh olives cold-pressed mechanically pressed without the use of chemicals or heat. Even “virgin olive oil” is oil that has not undergone refinement but has higher acidity than extra virgin olive oil, so retains only some of its natural aromas and flavours. Any other kind of oils, and there are many, are either squeezed from the leftovers used to make extra virgin, extracted from poor-quality olives, or contain just a tiny fraction of olive oil (sometimes as little as 10%) blended with cheaper edible oils to add to shelf life and increase profits.

Also, “bottled in Greece” doesn’t mean it was grown in Greece. The oil may be imported from elsewhere and packaged there. Colour is not an indication either, because some manufacturers add chlorophyll for the greenish hue associated with extra virgin olive oil.

Labelling laws and quality control are the other issues, with food-safety laws and enforcement varying widely across countries, making room for trickery.

Olmsted deconstructs the laws, the labels and explains which foods could be a real threat to health.