Just add (extra-virgin) olive oil

The unknown dangers of grocery shopping

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
- Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

In 2012, a book was released in Italy entitled All You Know About Food Is False (in Italian, “Tutto quello che sai sul cibo è falso”). The author, Sara Farnetti, has a PhD in physiopathology of nutrition and metabolism from the Università Cattolica of Rome, and specializes in internal medicine. As a nutritionist for stars, athletes, and politicians (one of her company’s programs is even called “Food for managers, nourish leaderships”), she has earned fame for debunking many dietary myths.

Of course, myths about food in Italy are sometimes quite different than their American counterparts. My personal favorite is that eating pasta at dinner, as opposed to lunch, makes you fat. When I read this, my mind went immediately to a year I spent living with a certain Milanese who ate pasta almost every day, and almost exclusively at lunch. The rare times he prepared it for dinner were the “family” dinners, when his French, German, American, and Spanish friends, ignorant of the added danger to our waistlines, would request a special pasta dish.

Apart from pasta myths, Farnetti emphasizes the healthy importance of what she thinks of as nature’s finest gifts: extra-virgin olive oil, wine, and dark chocolate. Most readers will probably shake their head in disbelief at what surely is too good to be true, but even Farnetti’s unusual approach emphasizes that chocolate and wine must be consumed in moderation, ideally as part of a monitored plan. Olive oil is a different story: one can consume it in regular, plentiful amounts, but ONLY when it is 100% extra-virgin olive oil. Anything of lesser quality causes the nutritional value to plummet.

With that, the stage is set to introduce a more recent, American book about food. Real Food/Fake Food is part journalist Larry Olmsted’s culinary diary (he travels to places like Parma and Champagne for the best of the best in cheese and wine) and part investigative reporting into the dubious morals of “Big Food” in America. The subtitle of the book, Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, can be boiled down to one principal talking point: food fraud.

According to Olmsted, there are various degrees of food fraud, but they all result in consumers either paying more than what a product is worth or buying or ordering something claiming to be something else entirely. Most often, this results in nothing more than being effectively duped, but food fraud can cause serious, sometimes life-threatening consequences. It is one thing to buy what is masquerading as parmigiano reggiano (the authentic parmesan cheese from Parma which cannot be reproduced outside of this Italian city) but in reality is a totally different type of cheese cut with wood chippings. It is another thing entirely to buy a dessert claiming to be flavored with hazelnuts for your child with peanut allergies, only to see your child break out into hives in reaction to the peanut dust that the label carefully didn’t mention.

Real Food/Fake Food offers many such examples of how lax rules by the FDA, immoral “Big Food” practices, and customer ignorance lead to excessive instances of food fraud every day. One product in particular highlighted by Olmsted is extra-virgin olive oil. He, like Farnetti, emphasizes that it is one of the healthiest dietary must-haves, but only when it is 100% real extra-virgin. In an interview on “The Diane Rehm Show,” Olmsted states that between 85 and 92 percent of alleged extra-virgin olive oil bottles are fake, “stripped of health benefits — and some might not even be made from olives.” While people like Olmsted, and myself, see this as akin to a crime against food, FDA officials consider other matters, such as E. coli, to be much more pressing, and despite their knowledge of olive oil fraud, choose to turn a somewhat blind eye.

Vaulting back across the Pond to Italy, Farnetti, and the lifeblood of the Mediterranean diet, we encounter a very different response. Italy, so famous for its olive oil, cannot produce enough for internal demand. As a result, companies have started importing large amounts of olive oil from other Mediterranean countries and mixing it with their own oil. This practice was unknown to most Italians until 2015, when seven big-name oil companies were brought to court for falsifying the claim of extra-virgin. In the summer of 2016, they were found guilty of selling virgin oil as extra-virgin and had to pay fines of up to 550,000 euros according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. In the very same month, it became illegal for bottles to boast of being “100% Italian” if their oil is cut with anything other than olives cultivated in Italy.

For the moment, Italians seem to be assured of being able to cook their meals with genuine extra-virgin olive oil, hopefully enjoying them with wine and dark chocolate. But, as Olmsted points out, it is a much different story for Americans. Our solution is self-education and wary purchasing (he suggests Australian, Chilean, or Californian extra-virgin olive oil, like the 365 brand from Whole Foods), because we cannot yet trust the FDA or the government to protect us from unsavory food fraud.

While this is not at all reassuring, educating yourself with a book like Olmsted’s is one way to head into Thanksgiving preparations with a keener eye for healthy, genuine quality.


Sarah from Team Instaread
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