Artificial wasabi, cassia, and more fake foods you may not know about

Battle of the Ingredients

7 food imposters and when it’s okay to use them

by Brian Campbell | December 2, 2010

Authenticity is a loaded issue when it comes to cooking. Deviate just slightly from grandma’s lasagna recipe and suddenly the whole family is freaking out that it’s not the “real thing” anymore. But the fact is, we all come across ingredients that pose as other ingredients every day. Sometimes these impostors are touted for their health benefits or convenience. Other times, they’re just cheaper. It’s important to know which is the real thing, which is the impostor, and when to use each. Here are seven of the most common ones:

  • Whipped Cream vs. Whipped Topping

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Whipped Cream

    A plain slice of pumpkin pie or a mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows is fine for a night at home, but when you’ve got company, you’ll want to make it a little special. For those occasions, light and fluffy whipped cream takes your desserts to the next level of sumptuousness. And it’s surprisingly easy to make. Even if you don’t have a mixer, just a few minutes with a whisk will do the trick. Add vanilla for a creme chantilly or a little sugar if you need a little more sweetness.

    The Impostor: Whipped Topping

    You may be worried about the fat in heavy whipping cream (about 36 percent), but whipped topping can be more than 50 percent fat and it’s loaded with sugar – in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, to boot. Not only is all that sugar bad for you, it can also overpower that dessert you worked so hard on. If that’s not enough, whipping your own cream will cost you about half as much and take up less space in your fridge.

    When to use the impostor

    Whipped cream is so easy to make, it’s a rare occasion when the convenience of the pre-made stuff doesn’t outweigh the downside. If you absolutely don’t have five minutes to whip up your own, don’t own a whisk, or need to make a smiley face on pancakes with the spray canister, buy the impostor. Otherwise, stick with the real thing for this one.

  • Ricotta vs. Cottage Cheese

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Ricotta Cheese

    Strictly speaking, ricotta isn’t a cheese, but an ingenious way to take a byproduct of making cheese and turn it into something wonderful. Rich, creamy, and just a little bit sweet, most Americans know it as a crucial ingredient in lasagna, but it’s also a wonderful filling for crepes and blintzes.

    The Impostor: Cottage Cheese

    While cottage cheese is a great food in its own right (when I was a kid, I would load up on it any time I got near a salad bar), it can also be used as a stand-in for ricotta when you’re cooking. For example, you can swap it in for ricotta when making lasagna or crepes.

    When to use the impostor

    The main reason to use cottage cheese instead of ricotta is that a lot more of us have a tub of cottage cheese in the fridge than ricotta. So if you’re making a lasagna, there’s no need to make a trip to the store just to buy ricotta. Also, ricotta can be pretty high in fat, so depending on the cottage cheese you use, it can be a great low-fat substitute.

  • Butter vs. Margarine

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Butter

    I don’t need to tell you that butter is delicious. In everything. All the time. Meats, desserts, breads, pasta, vegetables, sauces, you name it – they all taste richer and more wonderful with butter. That little restaurant downtown that you love so much – its secret is tons and tons of butter. Butter fell out of favor during the ’80s and ’90s because it’s high in saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease.

    The Impostor: Margarine

    When butter seemed scary, people switched to margarine, a blend of vegetable oils, skim milk, dyes and flavorings that are low in saturated fat (but can be high in trans-fats). Margarine can be substituted for butter as a spread or added to cooked food for a buttery flavor. Cooking is a different matter, though. You can bake with it, but your pies will be less flaky, your cakes will be drier, and your cookies won’t flatten out properly.

    When to use the impostor

    While margarine used to seem clearly healthier than butter, things are a bit more muddled now. Some argue that saturated fats aren’t as bad as they’ve been made out to be, and the trans-fats in many margarines are almost certainly bad for you. Butter may be bad for your cholesterol, but it can also make you feel more sated and reduce over-eating. Ultimately, when it comes to health, it’s a judgment call. When it comes to flavor, butter wins hands-down in my book, but if you’re more comfortable with margarine, you can use it for anything but baking without ill effects.

  • Saffron vs. American Saffron

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Saffron

    Saffron is probably the most expensive ingredient in your kitchen. Requiring a huge amount of labor to produce, it’s the kind of ingredient that makes you wonder how people ever started using it in the first place. The three tiny thread-like stigma of the saffron crocus have to be separated by hand and then dried. It takes 14,000 flowers to produce a single ounce of saffron. The result, though, is worth the effort. Saffron provides a unique pungent taste and vibrant yellow color. For authentic Indian, Persian and Turkish cuisine, it is indispensable. Even many Mediterranean dishes like paella and bouillabaisse traditionally include it.

    The Impostor: American Saffron

    The spice you’ll sometimes see labeled as “American saffron” in grocery stores is not saffron at all. The significantly lower price is the first tip-off. In fact, American saffron is just another name for safflower, a thistle grown mainly for its seeds that can be made into a neutral oil that’s completely flavorless. Safflower can provide foods with the same brilliant color as saffron, but like safflower oil, it’s pretty flavorless. That can be a great quality in a cooking oil, but for a spice? Not so much.

    When to use the impostor

    I suppose if there were a dish that you wanted to have a brilliant yellow color, American safflower would get the job done. I’m just not sure what that dish would be. Saffron is expensive, but a little goes a long way – spring for the real thing.

  • Cow’s Milk vs. Soy Milk

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Cow’s Milk

    Cow’s milk is synonymous with wholesomeness. When George McFly ordered a glass of milk at the diner in Back to the Future, you knew right away that he was a good guy. A staple of Western cuisine, cow’s milk is essential for breakfast cereals, sauces, baking, and covering up the burnt taste of your coffee. The fat content can be worrisome to some, but there’s always skim milk – if you’re into that.

    The Impostor: Soy Milk

    Soy milk gives people who are lactose intolerant, allergic to milk, or vegan the chance to enjoy a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and coffee that’s not black. It can also be used as a one-to-one substitute for cow’s milk in baking, without serious effects. However, there are some health concerns around soy because it contains phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body and may be related to certain health problems like breast cancer. But it can also prevent certain health problems as well. There’s a lot of heated rhetoric about the risks and benefits of soy, but the truth is there aren’t many clear answers on the health effects of soy.

    When to use the impostor

    This one varies a lot from person to person. If you’re lactose intolerant, allergic to milk, or vegan, then soy milk can be a wonder. If you’re not, there’s not much of a need for it, and it’s just a matter of preference. However, because the jury is still out on the potential health effects of soy milk, it’s probably best to consume it in moderation, especially if you’re pregnant or nursing. Remember, too, that soy itself is an allergen, so if you or a guest is allergic to soy or legumes, avoid soy milk.

  • Real Cinnamon vs. Cassia

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Cinnamon

    Native to Sri Lanka, real cinnamon comes from the bark of the Ceylon cinnamon tree. Unlike what we are used to in America, it’s tan in color and has a delicate taste. While it’s rare here, it’s much more popular in Latin America and some Asian countries. Because it has less heat than cassia, it generally works better in sweet dishes.

    The Impostor: Cassia

    Cassia comes from the bark of several other varieties of the cinnamon tree that grows in southeast Asia. It has a reddish brown color and sweet and spicy flavor. Most of what is sold in the United States as cinnamon is cassia, but the only way you can tell is by looking at its color – the label doesn’t always indicate the difference. Because of its heat, it does quite well in savory dishes, although it also appears frequently in desserts.

    When to use the impostor

    Although cassia may not be “real cinnamon,” it’s what most of us are used to eating. So for recipes that call for cinnamon, cassia will give you the familiar flavor. However, if you can get your hands on real cinnamon at a specialty store, it’s worth keeping on hand for desserts and authentic Latin American cooking. Wouldn’t you like to know what a Mexican hot chocolate really tastes like?

  • Real Wasabi vs. Fake Wasabi

    Jewish Penicillin

    The Real Thing: Real Wasabi

    Real wasabi is a Japanese condiment made from the grated root of the wasabi plant, traditionally served with sushi. It is known for its intense heat, which, like horseradish, is felt in the sinuses. Beneath the heat, it has a complex earthy flavor. However, it is exceedingly rare in the United States, although you may have better luck finding it on the West Coast.

    The Impostor: Fake Wasabi

    So, if real wasabi is exceedingly rare in the United States, what is it we’re eating when we go to sushi restaurants? That green putty that comes on the side is actually a combination of horseradish, mustard and food coloring. The horseradish and mustard actually do a good job of imitating the heat of wasabi as they are also felt more in the sinuses than on the tongue, but they don’t have the complex flavors of the real thing.

    When to use the impostor

    The sad fact is, most of us are only going to come across fake wasabi most of the time. If your favorite sushi restaurant offers “fresh wasabi,” that’s probably the real thing. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to make do with the impostor until your next trip to Japan.

Article Posted 7 years Ago

Videos You May Like