We rely on a lot of visual clues to know what exactly we're buying and eating on a daily basis: packaging, pictures, and text that tell us we're about to purchase crab, or bacon, or truffle oil. But tricky marketing, small print, and especially labels and phrases that are unregulated in the U.S. (i.e., "craft," "extra-virgin") can lead you to think you're getting one thing when you're really getting another.
Ahead, nine foods you might be consuming on a daily basis that aren't what they seem. Truffle oil fans, you may want to prepare yourself.
Bacon Bits Our love for all things bacon extends from strips to bits, which we happily dress salads and jacket potatoes with on salad bars. But these pork pretenders, in all likelihood, contain absolutely zero pig products. The fact that they're stored at room temperature should be a tip-off, but the first ingredient you'll find in most bacon bits is typically textured vegetable flour. If you really want bits of bacon in your meal, you're better off chopping up and cooking some of your own.
Kobe Beef As we've written about before, if you're getting Kobe beef outside of Japan... you're probably not getting Kobe beef. Like authentic Parmesan cheese or Champagne wine, true Kobe beef must come from a very specific area of the world (in this case, Hyogo Prefecture), and also meet extremely high standards. But since Kobe isn't a protected designation in the U.S., restaurants are free to market everything from steaks to hotdogs and sliders as Kobe or Wagyu, another term for Japanese beef. But even Wagyu beef has murky, potentially meaningless meaning. It just means "beef from Japan" and is also an unregulated term.
Fruit Juice First, the good news: If you're drinking something labeled 100% fruit juice then it is 100% fruit juice. But beyond that, you may be inadvertently buying drinks that are blended with less expensive juices to bring the price down. The FDA has a host of rules guiding what you can and can't say on juice labels, but it can be incredibly easy to meet those requirements in fine print or with some fancy language. For example, anything labeled a fruit drink, cocktail, or beverage is likely watered down. Labels must also include everything in a blend, but that information can also be obscured or hidden. Manufacturers may rely on you seeing a picture of juicy apples or grapes on the packaging and not notice the small print. Bottom line? If you want to make sure you're getting 100% or unblended fruit juice, look at the label.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Like with Kobe beef, there is currently no mandatory certification to label olive oil as "extra virgin." Some studies have even found that olive oil imported from Europe may be adulterated with neutral oils like peanut, soybean, or sunflower oils. But the real issue for many bottles isn't other oils sneaking in, it's that the extra virginity status has as much to do with freshness as it does with the actual ingredients. Selina Wang, of the UC Davis Olive Center, explained to Refinery29 earlier this year that olive oil that was extra virgin at pressing may no longer meet extra virgin specifications by the time you buy it at the store. For more of her tips on getting the most out of your olive oil, check out our guide.
Pumpkin When we think of pumpkins, we tend to think of the round, orange gourd. But what is a pumpkin, gourd, or squash isn't regulated by the USDA. That means that canned pumpkin we use puree for pies might contain other forms of squash. But don't despair – those gourds are often sweeter and less stringy than sugar pumpkins, the small, round orange pumpkins most suitable for cooking. That said, the outcry on fake pumpkins may be a bit overblown. While there are plenty of canned pumpkin brands out there, odds are you're buying or eating Libby's. The company sells around 85% of the puréed pumpkin in grocery stores, and it's made from a single ingredient: a proprietary hybrid gourd derived from the Dickinson pumpkin. While it looks like a cross between butternut squash and a more "classic" pumpkin ( get a look at them in the field), baked in a pie, it still tastes like a pumpkin.
California Roll Crab If you're eating a crab cake, in all likelihood, you're getting the real thing. But if you're eating crab in a California roll, you're almost certainly not eating a crustacean at all. Crab stick, sometimes spelled "krab," or labeled "imitation crab," is a fish paste called surimi, and typically made from pollock or another white fish.
Truffle Oil It can cost hundreds of dollars for just one truffle, making truffle oil an easy way to impart the smell and taste of the luxury fungus to food. But real truffle, while pungent when fresh, loses its smell and taste quickly and isn't suitable to infuse in oils or other foods. That means that truffle oil relies on additives like synthetically-made molecules, in much the same way imitation vanilla is made with man-made vanillin, the main organic compound in real vanilla. The fact that truffle oil is either mostly or completely flavored with flavors from a lab has lead many chefs, like Gordon Ramsay, to dismiss it as “One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to [a] chef."
Wasabi A Washington Post article in 2014 revealed a pretty shocking fact: as much as 99% of the stuff served as wasabi in the U.S. is likely fake. And the numbers are similarly high in the rest of the world, including Japan. That's because real wasabi is expensive and difficult to harvest. The stuff you're getting in restaurants is mostly horseradish with other flavorings and green dye. If you want to try the real thing, you'll have to find a wasabi root of your very own and grate it fresh.
Craft Whiskey Whiskey is experiencing a boom in the U.S., which means new distilleries and craft brands are popping up all the time. They often rely on, either explicitly or implicitly, the idea that the drinks were hand-crafted and maybe even hand-bottled in a specific location. But whiskeys are often aged for years before they make their way to a bottle (and later your bar cart). A Daily Beast investigation back in 2014 found that many of these newer, craft distilleries were often buying their product from a factory in Indiana. The same investigation found that this has proven especially true for rye whiskey. Originally just used as an ingredient in blended whiskeys, it has recently has undergone a boom of its own as a stand-alone craft spirit. Even heritage brands that distill and bottle their own whiskeys have had to buy rye from larger factories to keep up with the latest trends.