By Manos Angelakis

patagonian toothfish aka chilean seabass

Caveat Emptor

The Roman warning: Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware) fits very well into today’s marketplace.

The unique affluence and willingness of the American public to try the pleasures of foods and fresh products from other countries has caused professional chefs and home cooks alike to start offering upscale and exotic meals to their guests that were unknown in the US fifty years ago.

The problem is that many of these products that grace home and restaurant larders are not always what they are touted to be. It is not the fault of the buyers, many of whom have never seen or experienced the real thing. The advertising and marketing industries are to blame for creating highfalutin names for lowly ingredients or even trying to pass mixtures of chemicals as “real food”.

A case in point is what appears on restaurant menus and fish markets as Chilean Sea Bass, a rather expensive fish. 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 chill waters of the Antarctic and in the fish markets of Chile and Argentina was a really inexpensive catch until the very high volume exports commenced and the wholesale export prices did rise accordingly.

Churascaria Argentina Steak in Mushroom Sauce

And talking about Argentina... many diners pay top dollar in East Coast steakhouses and churascarias for “Argentine” beef that purportedly comes from hormone-free cattle grazing in the Argentinean pampas. In actuality, what is presented as “Argentinean steaks” is, in some cases, cheap frozen beef imported from Australia or even the feedlots of Texas.

There are potato chips in the market that aren't really potato chips. At least, in this case, there is truth in the promotional verbiage on the container. Those tubes of stackable, crispy ovals are labeled "potato crisps" instead of "potato chips". Some contain as little as 40% real potatoes -- and even that comes in the form of dehydrated potato flakes. The flakes are mixed with rice flour and other starches to make up for the lower potato content.

Sushi and Wasabi

Plenty of other ingredients are being replaced by inexpensive stand-ins. Wasabi paste, for example, is a staple in America’s over 8,500 sushi bars. It has also started showing on non-Japanese restaurant menus in such dishes as “Wasabi Crusted Salmon” or “Grouper with Wasabi Sauce”. Most wasabi in the US is actually powdered horseradish or mustard seed and green food coloring, at retail cost of $6 to $10 per pound, not real wasabi -- that has a much more subtle taste -- whose retail cost is about $160 per kilogram (2.2 lb).

Prized “Blue Point” oysters are rarely actually raised from the waters of Blue Point, New York. Otherwise, they would have been long ago harvested to extinction. Flounder is commonly sold in some restaurants as sole. Rounds of shark meat cut with a small cookie cutter have masqueraded for scallops and undersized sea scallops often are served as Nantucket Bay scallops, a far more expensive ingredient.

If you are eating Camembert or Brie in the US, it is probably a fake. US law prohibits, with few exceptions mostly for cheeses from Italy, the importation of cheeses made from unpasteurized milk. In the Brie and Camembert literature and promotion you will see with large type all kinds of verbiage about the French and European cheese-making traditions. Only in the back bottom and in very small type you will find the information that the Brie product is actually made in the USA, usually Wisconsin. The Camembert has no country source indication whatsoever! I check the product boxes every year at the Summer Fancy Food Show to verify, and did so this year as well without seeing any change in the packaging.

And then, there are products sold as “food” that are actually a mixture of chemicals with no food value whatsoever! When you get a strawberry milkshake, you would expect it to be made from strawberries, cream, milk and sugar, right? 

Well... according to the UK’s Daily Mirror, here is the list of ingredients in a strawberry milkshake from Burger King: Amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone,  ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone (10% solution in alcohol), ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenothyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent!

Truth in marketing? Let the buyer beware!


Manos Angelakis
Managing Editor/Sr. Food & Wine Writer



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