Eat Up — And Don't Forget the Palate CleansersFood scientist Massimo Marcone travels the world's remotest corners to investigate bizarre food "delicacies": cheese infested with squirming maggots, coffee brewed from coffee beans extracted from the feces of a cat-like creature, and so on. Marconi's new book is In Bad Taste? The Adventures and Science Behind Food Delicacies.
Food scientist Massimo Marcone travels the world's remotest corners to investigate bizarre food "delicacies" — cheese infested with squirming maggots, coffee brewed from coffee beans extracted from the feces of a cat-like creature, salad oil made from nuts excreted by goats, and so on.
Marcone teaches food science at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. His new book is In Bad Taste? The Adventures and Science Behind Food Delicacies
For those who remain unenthusiastic about the idea of consuming insects, consider this: every year it is estimated that the average person unintentionally consumes just over five hundred grams of insects! One of the major entry points for insects into our food is flour which we use to make a wide assortment of foods, from bread and pasta to desserts and cereals. During the flour milling process, one of the purposes of the so-called "Entolator" is to smash insect parts into such small pieces that they cannot easily be seen with the naked eye. Still not convinced? Planning now to avoid products made from flour?
Moreover, the U.S. government legally permits certain levels of non-hazardous insect parts in various foods. Chocolate, for example, can contain up to sixty insect fragments per one hundred grams, peanut butter up to thirty, and tomato sauce up to thirty fly eggs per one hundred grams. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments permit up to twenty maggots per one hundred grams of mushrooms, approximately three hundred and twenty insect parts per fifty grams of ground pepper, and less than fifty insect parts per fifty grams of flour. The list goes on and on! Ever wondered about the "cochineal extracts" on the ingredients list of certain foods and beverages? These extracts come from the cochineal insect, and give red colour to foods, beverages, and even some brands of lipstick. So let me ask: Have you ever rubbed an insect all over your lips? Have you ever kissed one? Should I continue?
Inside the "CSI Laboratory" FOOD AND FOOD DELICACIES
Returning home from any of my many expeditions to far-off places around the world in search of the secrets behind assorted food delicacies always brings me back into familiar and "safer" territory. This is not to say that I yearn to return home, but home is where I can study these foods in much greater detail, thereby revealing things that I cannot see or measure in the field. Studying the multitude of food delicacies I bring back with me each year has turned my facilities into what some people have dubbed a special type of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) laboratory as many times what I find is criminal indeed!
In my laboratory, I can systematically study the foods I've brought back with me and, with my fieldwork data, determine once and for all if they are truly what the world says or thinks they are, or if they belong to the category of urban myths or legends. It is by no means an easy task but, due to the advancement of modern technology and techniques, my laboratory is equipped with a number of sophisticated pieces of analytical equipment that greatly facilitate these endeavours. An episode of CSI could easily be filmed in my laboratory, and no one would ever guess that we were examining foods rather than blood, hair, or other samples obtained from a murder scene. The laboratory is fully equipped with all sorts of state-of-the-art gas and liquid chromatographers suitable for searching for hidden or even missing signature chemical components in foods, as well as microscopes to probe for hidden fibres— hair, for example—that contaminate many foods. Electrophoretic equipment permits me to perform protein fingerprinting and so identify my foods, just as the DNA fingerprinting often shown on television helps identify an individual. The list of equipment goes on, each piece having a specific purpose in elucidating the truths behind the foods we eat. Very much like putting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together to produce one final picture.
Not only do I analyze the food I have personally collected, but I am often approached by individuals and businesses wishing to determine whether what they themselves have already purchased or intend to purchase is truly what it claims to be. Unfortunately, many of the food delicacies I have studied and am approached to examine have no officially recognized, published standards of analysis to confirm their authenticity or purity. This is where the delicacies I have collected from the field, and for which I have maintained a secure and documented chain of custody, serve as the gold standards against which I can compare the samples individuals and businesses bring to me.
Over the past few years, I have received for analysis more samples of Kopi Luwak coffee, the rarest and most expensive beverage in the world, than I would like to admit. In fact, I have received so many that I decided to publish the analytical methods I developed and utilized for authenticating this coffee in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Although my methods were published in Food Research International (2004), this has not curtailed the number of sample identification requests I get, probably because I have the only reliably authenticated samples available to act as the gold medal standards.
The results emanating from the numerous tests I have performed have shocked me and, in some cases, disillusioned me about the honesty of some distributors and the lengths to which they will go to make incredible amounts of money. To date, of the over one hundred samples of Kopi Luwak coffee I have tested, a surprising forty-two percent were found to be either complete fakes or, at best, adulterated (cut or diluted by two percent or more) with regular coffee beans. These statistics are shocking, to say the least! Unfortunately fraud is nearly the norm rather than the exception when dealing with a beverage for which only two to three hundred kilograms of beans are produced each year, and yet people are quite willing to wait as long as two years. The only good news behind this sad news is that the total number of frauds I have uncovered has dropped substantially in recent months. The reason for this is anyone's guess, but I suspect that a few key offenders and distributors have been adversely affected by my results and either have been put out of business or are looking for another way to deceive people.
Though Kopi Luwak coffee has been a popular subject for investigation, my laboratory has repeatedly investigated other foods as well—most notably, edible bird's nest. In 2005, I published yet another peer-reviewed article in Food Research International, this time examining these nests and how to ferret out the fakes. Sadly, using my newly developed methods on the various samples sent to me from around the world, problems with authenticity and purity again appeared.
Of the sixty or so samples I have tested, twenty-three percent were determined to be either complete fakes or adulterated (cut with two percent or more of other products). Although twenty-three percent did not pass my testing criteria, there were fewer complete fakes when compared with my findings for Kopi Luwak coffee. Although the adulterated nests looked totally authentic in terms of shape, colour, and smell, they were found to be cut with materials such as karaya gum, Tremella fungus, seaweed, or similar ingredients. It appeared that when nests were cut with these named products—adulterants, as we call them in the field—adulteration levels seldom rose above 10 percent. I would suggest that at levels higher than ten percent adulteration, the perpetrators were at a greater risk of being discovered, so they chose to remain at "safer" levels. Even at ten percent, though, the additional money one would realize from such practices is enormous. With a price tag of ten thousand dollars per kilogram, an additional one thousand dollars could easily, but illegally, be obtained.
Argan oil has probably been the least adulterated of the food delicacies I have examined, but with about sixteen percent of the samples tested having been found to be adulterated or complete fakes, the problem is anything but insignificant. A few "argan oil" samples I have tested have turned out to be nothing but olive oil! Although olive oil is a good oil, the dilution of much more expensive argan oil is still a deliberate act of deception used to make more money. It is a misrepresentation of a specific product, and it compromises the reputation of the genuine oil as well as that of its producers.
Testing of some pre-prepared dried morel mushroom soup bases have also produced some interesting surprises. Out of twenty mixes tested one season, two had ten percent "half-morels" mixed in. This was serious, because half-morels should not be eaten. Two other samples had approximately seven percent non-morel mushroom parts. On one visit to Ottawa, I found morels available for sale but discovered that they had been heavily sprayed with water, making them weigh more. Not only do we not buy water at two hundred and twenty dollars per kilogram, but spraying morels with water causes them to deteriorate at an accelerated rate.
To believe that these extremely rare items are the only food delicacies subject to adulteration and product misrepresentation would be naive to say the very least. There are many more common and mainstream delicacies we all eat that are just as adulterated as these rarer foods. Over the last few years I have tested several samples of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, which is derived from the flower of the crocus, Crocus sativus.
Saffron graces a multitude of exotic dishes served at high-end restaurants and at home. I have discovered that pre-ground saffron is susceptible to the addition of inferior parts of the saffron flower (specifically, the style), thereby diluting not only the safranal content responsible for the aroma, but also the picrocrocin content which provides taste, and the total crocin content, the source of the vibrant golden yellow pigment belonging to the carotenoid family. This pigment family is also responsible for the colour of vegetables and fruits such as carrots and tomatoes. Each of these three substances impacts important characteristics (aroma, taste, and colour) for any dish containing this spice. On a few occasions, I have also found safflower floral parts added to increase overall weight.
So-called truffle oils sold in high-end delicatessens to flavour foods also frequently surface as potential problems. The word truffle has its roots—pardon the pun—in the Latin word tuber which means "edible root." Truffles, which are often dubbed in-ground "black and white almonds," are a type of fungus collected in Europe with the help of either pigs or dogs. Due to their intense, highly desirable aroma, they are used to flavour various dishes from rice to pasta.
Unfortunately, it has been found that the vast majority of commercially available truffle oils contain only synthetically produced truffle aroma extracts specifically Bis-(methylthio)methane, instead of actual truffles. In a recent research trip in the fall of 2005 to San Miniato, Italy, to attend the yearly white truffle festival, I was informed by the president of the organization that this problem is rampant, and that stronger regulations are being sought and encouraged. But until then—caveat emptor . . . let the buyer beware!
So what is one to do? Not everyone has a laboratory or access to laboratory facilities. First of all, know that if the price appears too good to be true, it probably is. As with diamonds and gold, you get what you pay for. The price for the genuine article may fluctuate, but authentic items never sell for a mere fraction of the going price. Purchase only from reputable dealers that have an established clientele. Dealers that seem to have endless all-year supplies of seasonal foods or delicacies should be scrutinized to the fullest extent. Just as seasonal products such as watermelons appear much more frequently in the summer than in the winter, do not expect to find a glut of delicacies on the market they are out of season. In addition, it may be a good idea to keep a very small amount of a particularly enjoyable food delicacy for comparison with potential new purchases.
For those who may be considering buying some Kopi Luwak coffee, which as we've seen, is highly susceptible to adulteration, purchase green coffee beans rather than roasted beans as roasted Kopi Luwak beans are adulterated more often than green beans. Green Kopi Luwak beans, according to my research work, should be slightly darker in colour than regular green coffee beans. If you see a mixture of different-coloured beans, or beans of radically different sizes, there is a good chance they have been adulterated.
Green coffee beans are more easily tested for authenticity than roasted beans, and suppliers know this. Although roasting green Kopi Luwak coffee is an added step, many kitchen-scale coffee bean roasters are very economical to purchase and simple to operate. Also, note that green Kopi Luwak coffee beans can be stored in a dry, cool place for up to two years, whereas pre-roasted Kopi Luwak coffee must be consumed almost immediately. Even in the case of regular everyday supermarket coffee (pre-roasted and/or ground), it is stale by the time it is purchased, even when sold in the most technically advanced packaging. Coffee stales within two weeks of roasting, something consumers of regular supermarket coffee have either accepted or chosen to ignore, or of which they remain ignorant.
For those interested in purchasing edible bird's nest, stay away from the nests that have been cleaned and reassembled into convenient tear-shaped discs. These types of nests, although ready to cook, are often times heavily adulterated, as the reassembly process provides the perfect opportunity to introduce other products. Instead, I recommend purchasing the slightly more expensive cup-shaped nests, in which one can still see the occasional downy feather. These nests can easily be soaked and washed in warm water, and any remaining tiny feathers can be removed with a pair of tweezers. Stay away from precooked and bottled edible bird's nest soups; more often than not, they are adulterated. Just recently (January 2006) in Hong Kong, where I did some of my work, customs officials seized seventy-five thousand bottles of processed bird's nest soup, valued at four hundred thousand American dollars, and found it to be fake.
When purchasing saffron, considered to be the world's most precious and expensive spice, remember that at two-thirds the cost of gold per gram, it is also very susceptible to adulteration. Some of the more common adulterants are ordinary spices such as turmeric and paprika. At all costs avoid purchasing powdered saffron, since not only are many of these actually composed of other hard-to-detect red coloured spices, but if they contain saffron at all, it is the poorer quality saffron containing other non-desirable parts of the saffron flower.
These fakes are even harder to detect without analytical tests. To be totally safe, purchase the actual saffron floral part, that is the red stigmas, making sure that the total number of "style" (yellow) parts is at an absolute minimum. The styles, which are the stalks connecting the red stigma to the rest of the flower, can compose up to one-third of the weight of the package, and have little or no flavour, colour, or aroma. Saffron powder is easily made at home by mixing the stigmas with a small amount of granulated table sugar and grinding the mixture with a pestle and mortar. The sugar acts as both an abrasive agent and a slight sweetener.
In the case of truffle oil, experiment with making your own by purchasing shredded white or black truffles and placing a small quantity (five grams per one hundred millilitres) in lightly flavoured olive oil and keep refrigerated between uses. Such home-prepared truffle oil may be less aromatic and flavourful then the ones purchased at the store, but you can be sure it is totally natural. The intense aromas of some truffle oils are often a dead giveaway that a synthetic extract has been added.
Consumers often ask me the reason government protection agencies are not doing more to protect them from the fraudulent activities perpetrated by these vendors selling food delicacies. Why isn't the government testing the products on the market more often and more rigorously, and why doesn't it regulate these vulnerable foods more heavily? These questions are complex, and defy simple explanations or solutions. I submit that the problem is deep, and affects everyday foods as well as delicacies.
Much to everyone's surprise, although government agencies do perform random spot checks, audits, and analyses of foods, less than one percent of the foods we presently see on the grocery shelves have been tested by the government. This means that fewer than one in every hundred foods have gone through "compliance testing programs," which claim to provide a transparent, science-based system for assessing the accuracy of food labels and making sure foods meet food and drug regulations. As well, given limited resources, governments appear to concentrate on more mainstream, everyday food products rather than on delicacies, since these foods are commonly considered to pose a higher health risk and greater economic loss to consumers than food delicacies. This allocation of resources often leaves the latter seemingly unmonitored.
Even more disturbing than the rarity of testing of food delicacies is the fact that, according to my work on many mainstream foods, adulteration and substitution are by no means confined to delicacies. This realization came to me as a result of my testing of many foods for various television programs on the W Network, CTV, and Balance TV, to name a few. In testing everything from frozen pizzas and veggie burgers to cereals, cookies, and cola beverages, my eyes were opened to a systemic problem in product ingredient compliance.
There is little doubt in my mind that some food products presently sitting on people's pantry shelves are either improperly labelled or have undergone a transformation similar to that of many of the food delicacies I have studied. If you believe that all the nutritional labels that accompany food products are totally accurate, think again—my laboratory results say otherwise. I have discovered many violations of nutritional labelling standards, even with the outrageous twenty percent permissible accuracy leeway that many governments quietly give to producers. Regardless of the official displeasure engendered by my assessments as to government regulations and good manufacturing procedures (or GMP) which takes into account seasonal and processing variations), as a food scientist I am obligated to voice my concerns even if only to begin a constructive dialogue or debate on the issue.
Food systems in North America and Europe are safe but we can and, must, do better. Let's all be thankful that governments do not permit a twenty percent leeway on car brake function, or on aircraft navigation and safety equipment! Why, though, are standards pertaining to the food we consume not more strictly enforced? Now there is a topic for debate!