April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
February 22, 2013
In 1994, Julie Languille lived at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake, which struck the Los Angeles neighborhood with a magnitude of 6.7. She and her family were without power for two weeks, and the long lines at nearby grocery stores soon began to shrink as food ran out.
“It just became really important to me as part of my feeling of security and good planning for my family to have meals on hand,” Languille says.
The Puget Sound resident, who also runs a dinner planning website, has been canning meals since, and her recipes, ranging from oatmeal and macaroni and cheese to braised chicken and pulled pork, are featured in a cookbook published next month. Two years ago, Languille installed a full-scale food storage unit in her home, filling it with almost 100 jars of basic ingredients like meats and veggies to complex ready-made recipes for baby back ribs and chicken noodle soup. Besides canning and sealing tools, an assortment of jars and enough room in the kitchen, the only other ingredients necessary are water and some heat.
In her cookbook, Languille writes that her bags, jars, and boxes of shelf-stable meals are “insurance against hardship or hunger.” Aside from earthquakes and hurricanes, ready-made meals significantly cut prep time for dinner on a busy weeknight. No washing, cutting, chopping and measuring—that was done weeks or months ago. Jars contain 100 percent of the ingredients necessary (other than water) for any given recipe, which nixes an extra trip to the grocery store for a forgotten item.
When stored in a cool, dry and dark place, dry meals can last for decades. Almost every fruit or vegetable can be dehydrated, a 24-hour process at high temperatures, and freeze-dried meats, which Languille says she buys online, have a long shelf life. But does the flavor of the ingredients hold up?
Languille says the answer is yes. When water is added, powdered eggs transform into fluffy beaten eggs and sour cream powder into dollops of the real stuff. Dehydrated apples, peaches and plums turn into gooey cobbler filling in the oven. Ground beef, once browned in a skillet and pressure-canned in a sterile jar for 75 minutes, becomes hearty chili when deposited into a pot of boiling water.
“The meals that I have on hand are tastier than the commercially prepared dried foods,” says Languille, who doesn’t use any artificial flavoring, coloring or preservatives in her recipes, save for a few packets of oxygen absorbers, which keep food from changing color or growing mold.
Languille replenishes her inventory four times a year, churning out nearly 40 canned jars in one weekend after a Costco-sized shopping trip. Whole meals are stored in quart-size jars and can produce soups and stews for parties of six to eight. Hamburger meat and chicken go in pint-size jars, which hold about a pound of meat and can serve four people
Languille uses a vacuum sealer to suck the air out of pouches filled with food. A dehydrator sucks out moisture from meats and vegetables, reducing their water content so they won’t spoil. A pressure canner preserves low-acid foods like meats, beans and vegetables.
Canning works in two ways. Pressure canning is used to preserve low-acid foods like meats, beans and vegetables. For example, a jar containing a piece of chicken is placed inside a pressure canner, which increases the pressure of the contents, causing steam to push out all of the air trapped inside. Then, the chicken remains stable at room temperature for long periods of time.
Water bath canning is used to preserve high-acid foods like fruits and tomatoes. Food is stored in sterilized jars, topped with warmed lids, and then boiled. This method works well for making jams and fruit butters and preserving spaghetti sauce and salsas
Canned and dry ingredients are packaged together in many of Languille’s recipes. Meat and sauce are cooked and canned together, then tossed into a jar with a sealed bag of pasta sauce and placed in a cupboard. Chicken canned with vegetables can be packaged with noodles to make chicken noodle soup or paired with flour and pie crust ingredients to produce a chicken pot pie.
Read on for the recipe for chicken noodle soup, which Languille says is her favorite, and others, featured in her forthcoming cookbook “Meals in a Jar: Quick and Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes.”
Chicken Noodle Soup
Makes 8 servings
For soup mix: In each of 8 quart-size canning jars or retort pouches, add, seal, and then pressure-can for 75 minutes:
• 1 cup chopped lightly browned chicken
• ¾ cup chopped onion
• ¾ cup peeled and chopped carrots
• ¾ cup chopped celery
• 2 tablespoons chicken soup stock
• 1 slice dehydrated lemon
• 2 teaspoons dried thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• Water, to cover and leave 1 inch of headspace in a 1-quart jar, or 2 inches in a retort pouch
For noodle packet: In each of 8 vacuum bags, add and then seal:
• 2 cups egg noodles
In each of 8 Mylar bags, tote bags, or vacuum bags, store:
• 1-quart jar or retort pouch chicken soup mix
• 1 packet noodles
Combine the chicken soup mix and 12 cups of water in a large pot over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and add the noodles. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are tender. Remove the bay leaf and lemon slice, and serve.
Omelet in a Bag
Makes 16 (2 to 3-serving) meals
In each of 16 zip-top quart-size freezer bags, package:
• ¼ cup powdered eggs
• 1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 teaspoon dried chives or thyme
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 pinch pepper
Heat a medium pot of water over medium heat to just simmering. Add ¹⁄₃ cup of water to the bag and squish the bag to combine (or put in a bowl and stir with a fork). Place the bag of omelet mixture into the water and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until solid and just cooked through. Divide the omelet into portions and serve.
Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes 6 batches (about 3 dozen cookies each)
For cookie mix: In each of 6 vacuum bags, Mylar bags, or jars, add and then seal:
• ½ cup granulated sugar
• ½ cup brown sugar
• 1 tablespoon powdered eggs
• 1¼ cups flour
• ¾ teaspoons baking soda
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
For peanut butter: In each of 6 vacuum bags or disposable 4-ounce containers, add and then seal:
• ½ cup (4 ounces) peanut butter
For shortening: In each of 6 vacuum bags, add and then seal:
• ½ cup shortening
In a Mylar bag, tote bag, or vacuum bag, store:
• 1 jar or pouch cookie mix
• 1 packet peanut butter
• 1 packet shortening
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine the shortening, cookie mix, and 2 tablespoons of water until a stiff dough forms. Roll into small balls about the size of walnuts and flatten with a fork in a crisscross pattern. Place on a baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.
February 20, 2013
Give a baby her first spoonful of mashed spinach or blended brussell sprouts and you can likely watch her face pucker up in shocked torment. Veggies tend to be a dreaded childhood bane for many youngsters, yet there are exceptions to the vegetable hate rule. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to score highly. But why is that? As a general rule, much of our likes and dislikes spawn from sweetness – or at least our perception of it.
Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to like sweetness, since it’s indicative of calorie-rich sugar. Millennia ago, when we were just beginning our evolutionary journey as Homo sapiens, those individuals who preferred and thus consumed sugar had an edge. Sugar imparts a quick energy boost, so desiring, locating and consuming sugar-rich food could mean the difference between out-maneuvering a predator, keeping warm during a cold night or bearing healthy children. Our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, also share this propensity towards the sweet. Chimps regularly concoct creative ways to brave beehives to reach the sweet honey inside.
In today’s world of car commutes, office jobs and sugary snacks, however, our attraction to sugar turns against us, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity. The processed food industry realized this a long time ago when it dawned on them that cranking up the sugar content of even the most cardboard-like snack automatically makes it delicious to our primitive food brains.
But sugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ”The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. “The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.”
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that “fixing the flavor” of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. “If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,” Klee said. “Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he continued. “We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.”
What we think of as flavor actually has a great deal to do with the subtle smells of volatiles. Not convinced? The researchers predicted as much. In Boston, they whipped out samples of gummy bear-like candy (raspberry and blueberry Sunkist fruit gems to be specific) to prove the power of volatiles to the audience. As instructed by the Klee and his colleagues, I pinched my nose shut tight, then popped the candy into my mouth, chewed and swallowed half of it. As if I had a seriously stuffed up nose from a bad case of the flu, the candy felt squishy and lackluster on my tongue. This bland sensation, the researchers explained, is taste. Now, they instructed unplug your nose, and swallow the rest of the gummy candy. A wave of intense sweetness hit me like a sugary rainbow of fruity flavor. This is olfaction at work, explained Linda Bartoshuk, one of Klee’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Smell and Taste. “Who experienced a rush of flavor and sweetness that seemed about twice as powerful as before?” she asked. In a room of around 100 people, about half the hands shot up.
Several years ago, Klee made a mission of saving the modern tomato’s flavor in the hopes of ultimately improving consumer health. Those efforts have led him down a winding vine of chemistry, genetics and food science.
Rather than starting his investigation with tomato growers–who are paid to churn out attractive tomatoes, not make a flavorful food–Klee began with consumers, or the people who buy and eat tomatoes. He wanted to understand what makes good and bad flavor on a molecular level. Figuring out the formula for creating a delicious tomato that still maintains the high yields and disease resilience of the watery, bland supermarket offerings could give growers an easy-to-implement toolkit for improving their offerings.
Klee and his colleagues ground up dozens of tomato variety, then asked 100 different people to sample the fruits of the researchers’ labor and report back on their favorites and least favorites. Using that feedback, the researchers could identify which of the tomatoes’ more than 400 volatiles actually drove flavor. What they found indicated that consumers prefer tomatoes with a perceived sweetness – emphasis on “perceived.”
For example, yellow jelly beans, a breed of tomato, contain around 4,500 milligrams of sugar per 100 milliliters. A matina tomato, on the other hand, contains around 4,000 mg per 100 ml. Yet people perceive matinas as being about twice as sweet as yellow jelly beans. Volatiles drive the perception of what we think is sweetness in these two tomatoes.
Typically supermarket variety tomatoes vary in their sugar content, but they usually range from around 2,000 to 2,500 mg per 100 ml. The cherry tomato varieties typically sit in the 3,000 to 3,500 mg per ml range.
Just 15 to 20 volatiles control the majority of a tomato’s flavor, the researchers found. ”Some of the most abundant chemicals in a tomato have absolutely no influence on whether people like it or not,” Klee said.
This knowledge in hand, they went about creating a recipe for the perfect tomato, which resembles an heirloom. Their ideal fruit represents the average of what the research participants ranked as their preferred tomato. While absolute individual preferences may vary by demographics, cultures and whether or not someone is a supertaster, Klee believes that nearly everyone would agree that “this is a really good tomato.”
The next step, Klee says, is to move those desirable traits into the high yielding varieties of tomatoes. In the lab, he and his team successfully crossed modern tomatoes with their perfected heirloom, creating a hybrid. The new tomato maintains the deliciousness of the volatile-laden heirloom but produces twice as much fruit and keeps the modern strain’s resistance to disease. So far, yields aren’t quite at the level to convince commercial growers to change their ways, but Klee believes production improvements will get his tomato to the marketplace eventually.
“Can volatiles enhance sweetness while reducing our use of sugars and artificial sweeteners?” Bartoshuk posed. “We think: yes.”
February 15, 2013
Today, entering “chipotle” into a Google search yields 19.7 million results in a fraction of a second. The ingredient appears in more than 800 recipes on Food Network’s website. A MenuPages search for the ingredient generates more than 1,500 mentions of chipotle on the East Coast alone. Founded in 1993, the Chipotle Mexican Grill franchise grew from 16 locations in 1998 to more than 500 in 2005, then doubled that in 2011.
How did a small smoke-dried jalapeno reach such celebrity status in the kitchen?
Ten years ago, McCormick & Company, the largest spice company in the world, put chipotle on the map in its third annual flavor forecast, a roundup of spices and other ingredients that predicts a peak in popularity for that year. Chipotle, already well known and regularly used in central and southern Mexico, saw a 54 percent jump in menu mentions across America in the next seven years.
The company’s 2003 forecast also included lemon grass, sea salt and wasabi, present-day restaurant staples. Three years later, chai and paprika were the breakout stars. In 2011, the forecast featured flavors with origins outside of the states, highlighting curry and herbes de Provence.
McCormick’s team of nearly 100 chefs, sensory scientists, dietitians and marketing experts will talk 2014 flavors at a summit next month. But 2013 has just begun, and one of the ingredients in this year’s flavor combinations could become the next chipotle:
- Bitter dark chocolate, sweet basil and passion fruit. Pairing chocolate with fruit isn’t a new trend, but swapping traditional mint with basil is a new spin.
- Black rum, charred orange and allspice. Allspice is usually associated with baking, but pairing it with black rum could produce tropical cocktails.
- Cider, sage and molasses. This trio lends to rustic, comfort foods during chilly weather.
- Smoked tomato, rosemary, chili pepper and sweet onion. This quartet can be used to spice up homemade ketchup, sauces and jams.
- Faro, blackberry and clove. Faro, one of the oldest ancient grains, is similar to quinoa, which has begun showing up in the grocery aisle inside pastas and chips.
- Dukkah and broccoli. Dukkah is an Egyptian blend of cumin, coriander, sesame and nuts. It mostly appears in olive oil as a dipping sauce for table bread in American eateries, but McCormick chefs say uses can extend to toppings for soups, stews and salads.
- Hearty cuts of meat, plantains and cinnamon sticks. Plantains can stand in for potatoes in the classic meat-and-potatoes meal.
- Artichoke, paprika and hazelnut. These three aren’t new on the market, but combining them in one palate makes for a more exotic dish.
- Anise and cajeta. McCormick chefs believe the latter will catch on quickly. It’s a thick Mexican syrup similar to dulce de leche, which many Americans are already familiar with.
- Japanese katsu and oregano. Katsu’s tanginess resembles barbecue and steak sauces.
Zeroing in on trends is the easy part, says McCormick chef Mark Garcia. It’s the recipes that are tricky. They combine the ten flavor combinations with complementary ingredients and taste-test the recipes multiple times.
“One of the worst things we could do is just come up with a recipe where the ingredients don’t make sense but we thought they sounded cool together,” Garcia says. “We clearly have to bring some techniques as well as some artistry to the process so that we create combinations that are both relevant but also make sense from a culinary standpoint.”
Garcia’s prediction for the frontrunner this year for America’s next top flavor is dukkah, explaining that it’s “one of those ingredients where literally the term ‘all-purpose’ comes to mind.” The blend, along with the other flavors, may diffuse into the food industry, cropping up in grocery aisles and the pages of restaurant menus. But will the average citizen’s taste buds accept the new flavor?
Ami Whelan, a senior scientist at McCormick, thinks so. Her job is to evaluate, measure and interpret people’s responses to food based on their senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing.
“The senses help us make decisions about the foods we eat. For instance, the appearance of a strawberry helps us make a decision on whether the fruit is ripe,” Whelan writes in an email. “The aroma of fresh baked bread or cinnamon rolls direct us to the store where we expect to taste a fresh, tasty product.”
A sensory analysis of flavor combinations reveals the likelihood of consumer acceptance, but Whelan says she usually has an inkling about the outcome.
“The chefs and culinarians on the team have an extensive intrinsic knowledge of the basic sensory properties of foods and flavors and innately know, even prior to tasting, what might work well together and what likely does not,” she says. “All of us on the team are foodies by nature, meaning that food and flavor is not just our job, but also our hobby and favorite past-time.”
February 4, 2013
Is your lemon juice really citrusy sugar water?
Is that hunk of white tuna sushi actually escolar, a cheaper fish associated with its own kind of food poisoning?
And is your age-defying pomegranate juice just plain-old grape juice with a splash of the good stuff?
After winning a seat in the pantheon of so-called “super foods,” pomegranates got a burst of popularity, with consumers craving everything from fresh seeds to juices and teas. But its newfound fame also found it the victim of an age-old problem: food fraud. According to the non-profit organization U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) in Maryland, pomegranate juice was the most common case of food fraud in the past year, often watered down with grape or pear juice to cut costs.
The group operates the Food Fraud Database, which went live in April 2012 and recently added 800 new records. Other usual suspects from the scholarly articles, news accounts and other publicly available records include milk, honey, spices, tea and seafood.
Though senior director of food standards Markus Lipp says we enjoy a high level of food safety in the United States, he also warns, “The real risk of adulteration is that nobody knows what’s in the product.”
Adulteration, according to the Food and Drug Administration, includes foods in which, “any substance has been mixed and packed with it so as to reduce or lower or injuriously affect its quality or strength,” including, added poisons or deleterious ingredients. Sometimes contaminants pose severe health risks, as was the case with the tainted milk from China in 2008. But often it’s a matter of using a cheaper, but still legal product to cut another.
To avoid fraud, Lipp subscribes to the idea that if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is, particularly for liquids. And for ground foods, like spices, coffee and tea, Lipp suggests buying whole food products to have a better sense of what’s really in there.
1. Olive Oil: Olive oil might have the distinction of being the oldest adulterated good. “Olive-oil fraud has been around for millenia,” according to the New Yorker. Cut with sunflower and hazelnut oils, olive oil was considered “the most adulterated agricultural in the European Union” by the late 1990s. Even after a special task force was formed, the problem remains. In his 2012 book, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” Tom Mueller writes about the ongoing fraud. Mueller tells the New Yorker, “In America, olive-oil adulteration, sometimes with cut-rate soybean and seed oils, is widespread, but olive oil is not tested for by the F.D.A.—F.D.A. officials tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities far too long, to police the olive-oil trade.”
2. Honey: In 2011, honey was at the center of the largest food fraud case in United States history, along with “a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats.” The $80-million case involved a flood of cheap honey imported into the United States after being contaminated first with antibiotics and then with “corn-based syrups to fake the good taste,” according to the Globe and Mail. A quick search on the USP database reveals the problems persists, with added sweeteners like corn, cane and beet syrups.
Spices and Ground Goods
3. Saffron: Corn silk, dyed onion, beet fiber and sandlewood dye; these are a few of our least favorite things, that get passed off us as saffron, according to USP. Lipp says it’s particularly easy to disguise other products as higher quality spices because the fine grain hides discrepancies. “If I buy ground black pepper, I obtain a fine powder of a gray speckled mess,” he says. But if he buys whole black peppercorns, Lipp says he can, “just by visual inspection, make sure there’s not a large amount of twigs or any other low-grade materials in it or anything else but black pepper.”
4. Tea: Suffering from a similar “speckled mess” problem as saffron, ground tea can disguise adulterants like, turmeric, copper salts and even sand and colored sawdust, according to database results. Loose leaf teas may offer a more reliable route, plus you can take up a cool new hobby and learn to read tea leaves.
5. Wasabi: You watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi and now you’re eating your way through all the Japanese eateries within a 50 mile radius, but–and no disrespect to the fine establishments you frequent–are you actually eating real wasabi? That kick in the sinuses may actually be courtesy of horse radish, mustard and food coloring, not paste made from grated wasabi root. Fortunately, horseradish still manages to get the job done but if you want the real thing, you may have to do some digging.
6. Sriracha: This “hipster ketchup” that is “so popular, that people are counterfeiting it,” recently got the rundown on the radio show, The Dinner Party. The mix of jalapenos, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar comes in an iconic rooster-stamped, green-capped bottle from California’s Huy Fong Foods. And though there is a town in Thailand called Sriracha, Randy Clemens, author of “The Sriracha Cookbook,” told the Dinner Party, the hot sauce there is very different from the mix hipsters love so dearly, though it involves the same core ingredients. In an attempt to capitalize on Huy Fong’s success, bottlers have begun mimicking the brand, even replacing the rooster with a unicorn in one instance. Less a matter of faked ingredients, it’s still pretty misleading and falls under the FDA’s regulations on “misbranding.” To make sure you’re getting the real Huy Fong deal, Clemens says, “You want to look for the green cap.”
Curious about what might be in your favorite food? Check it out on the Food Fraud Database.