Food purity and priorities

Continuing on our food adventures of northern Italy, today I booked us a small group tour to explore three of the food items that Emilia Romagna, known as the food capital province of Italy, is famed for; prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar. We explored factories and an organic winery located from the hills of Modena to Bologna. I always knew that the process of making these foods was complex, back-breaking, and time-consuming, but I never quite realized before exactly how regulated and pure the process was, and where the “fake” prosciutto, ‘parmesan,’ and balsamic vinegar came from, as well as how they are accepted in places like the U.S. But during the tour, as our guide talked about how strict the DOP/IGP labeling is for foods (it’s a designation of purity and origin for these food products) and DOC/DOCG labeling is for wines based on regions of Italy, I realized… no one in the U.S. seems to care much if an apple is grown in Washington state vs. Minnesota. No one in New York generally cares if their strawberries came from Peru vs. California vs. Jersey. There are small groups of people who do, obviously, which is why farmer’s markets have the crowds and loyalty they do, but that’s never a generalization you can make about Americans. Americans want cheap, fast food. That’s why we’re a fast food nation. That’s why in the U.S. when you buy packaged dried pasta, it will take on average 4-8 minutes to cook, when a package in Italy (which is more authentic, for obvious reasons), takes 13-14 minutes. Every minute seems to count in our increasingly obese country. Quantity, speed, and cheap prices matter. Quality doesn’t. So the idea of a similar DOP label or regulation in the U.S. wouldn’t mean anything to anyone, and no one would care. People in Italy actually care about the purity and quality of their food. It’s admirable.

Rejected Parmigiano-Reggiano becomes parmesan and is exported across the world; in parts of Europe, parmesan is outlawed. Most Americans don’t know the difference and still take their “parmesan” in a plastic can and shake it on their spaghetti (I grew up eating that way and never knowing what real Parmigiano-Reggiano was). Balsamic vinegar without an “Invecchitato,” “traditional,” or “IGP” label are oftentimes just wine vinegar with caramel coloring and sugar added to it; this isn’t regulated at all, anywhere. Real balsamic vinegar is made from grape juice, not wine vinegar.  Jars of pre-made tomato sauce found in grocery stores across Milan, Bologna, and Venice have just a few ingredients that you can readily recognize and would think to be no-brainers: tomatoes (first and foremost, always), olive oil, salt, pepper. Occasionally, you see herbs like oregano or basil or garlic added. But that is it. In the U.S. you pick up an average jar of pre-made tomato sauce (I can proudly say in the 9.5 years I’ve been living on my own post college that I’ve never, ever bought a can of tomato sauce for spaghetti, as I’ve made it myself), and what do you see? Sugar oftentimes is disgustingly the first ingredient or the second, with tomatoes following or beginning. Then, there’s things like high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch or tapioca starch as thickeners, artificial or “natural” colorings added, “natural flavor” from flavor factories in New Jersey… and other preservatives that you would never think of when thinking of tomato sauce. It’s disgusting.

It’s hard not to admire or respect how much Italians care about the purity, freshness, and plain goodness of their food. I wish our food and drug administration would care more about labels on everything from “organic” to “free range” to “grass fed.” There’s so much terrible marketing and lying on the market everywhere, so who can really keep track of all that in the U.S.?

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