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This article is part of a series related to being Financially Fit Updated and adapted from the book "1,001 Things They Won't Tell You: An Insider's Guide to Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely," by Jonathan Dahl and the editors of SmartMoney.
1. "Our delectables are as susceptible to germs as the supermarket stuff."
It used to be that gourmet food was most accessible at upscale restaurants. But now gourmet products are now standard items at local specialty shops as well.
It's the kind of stuff you can't wait to taste—but Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the University of Georgia, suggests self-control. "I personally would not buy any food exposed to handling," he says, practically shuddering at the notion of people "taking samples with their fingers." He points out that these visually-appealing foods may carry germs like salmonella and campylobacter jejuni, (a leading cause of bacterial diarrhea in the U.S.).
Richly-stocked salad bars are probably the worst offenders. Warm temperatures and unsterile prepping conditions can transform a Greek salad into a stomach-turning petri dish. "With some of these salad-bar items, after they're cut, the diseased organisms can grow and increase to dangerous levels," says Joseph Frank, a professor in the department of food, science and technology at the University of Georgia. Even at the most posh gourmet emporiums, he adds, "there are no disease-free guarantees."
Gourmet purveyors say the wash and cook everything properly, put up signs for consumers to use spoons, and require employees to wash their hands constantly. "You do everything you can to keep things scrupulously clean,"says David Grotenstein, head of purchasing at Garden of Eden Gourmet Market in New York. But "sometimes a consumer can introduce bacteria" by, say, sneezing.
2. "Our prices are often tough to swallow."
Nobody expects good food to come cheap. But it seems that the $59 billion gourmet food industry can exhibit some pretty creative pricing policies.
Within a four-block radius of New York City's Union Square, for example, the high-end Garden of Eden Gourmet Market sells a pint of raspberry Sharon's Sorbet for around $5.50; at Trader Joe's across the park, the store's raspberry sorbet will cost you around $3.30. Similarly, a package of four Dr. Praeger's Tex Mex veggie burgers that's about $6.50 at Garden of Eden sells for around three dollars less at the Trader Joe's. And the list goes on. David Grotenstein, head of purchasing at Garden of Eden says his company's prices are higher than Trader Joe's because Garden of Eden is smaller, sells less volume, and has less buying power.
Why do gourmet shoppers keep coming back if the markup is about the same as at a restaurant? Convenience, for one: Some people just prefer to pick up food and take it home to eat. If you eat at home, you save on a babysitter and tips, plus some consumers like the "total package" offered at these high-end specialty shops. It "makes shoppers happier," says John Roberts, former president of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
3. "This bottled water could be tap water."
Some of the hottest items in fancy food stores are the beautifully-packaged bottled waters. In fact, Americans consumed 8.8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2007 – the highest ever – before dropping to 8.7 billion gallons in 2008, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. (Preliminary data show consumption fell in 2009 by 2.4%, in part because consumers were cutting back on expenses.)
But despite the pleasing presentation, "a lot of bottled water is not necessarily better than tap water," explains Adrianna Quintero-Somaini, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. Consider Aquafina, which sounds vaguely European and is actually bottled by Pepsi. Aquafina is produced in the U.S. and its label states that it is "purified drinking water" that comes from "public water sources" – the same place where tap water comes from. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just might not be worth paying extra for. A spokesman for Pepsi says that Aquafina uses "a seven-step purification process," which includes reverse osmosis and carbon filtration. "The product that you begin with is largely different at the end of this process," he says.
Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water, some bottled waters could be less healthy than what pours into your sink. Somaini's agency spent three years testing more than 100 brands of bottled water, and found that some contained traces of fecal contamination and even arsenic. Like many food hazards, those associated with bottled water tend to be hard to detect. "The water can taste fine," says Somaini, "and still be contaminated." The FDA did not return a phone call before publication.
4. "Organic food is a crapshoot."
In some gourmet grocery stores, "organic" might seem like it's nothing more than a synonym for "expensive." Shoppers generally pay a premium of 30% to 40% for the label, says Lisa Young, professor of nutrition at New York University and registered dietician.
To receive the organic label, a product must be grown without pesticides or fertilizers for at least three years, says Barbara Haumann, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association. But what defines "organic" isn't always clear. Even after the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented standards in 2002, the labeling remains confusing to many consumers. "The biggest problem is that when something is made with organic ingredients, it doesn't mean it's organic" – instead the entire product must be organic, says Dr. Young.
Other problems range from salmonella and E. coli -- just because something is organic doesn't mean it can't be contaminated -- to mislabeling. A number of companies have been fined for the latter practice, among them Private Label Foods in Rochester, N.Y., which in 2008, paid a fine for selling jars of pasta sauce that were mislabeled as "organic." In 2007, High Desert Foods in Colorado paid a fine for mislabeling sauces and nuts. Neither company returned calls for comment.
5. "Buying the best isn't always what's best."
Many gourmet stores pride themselves on their high-quality products. But often their best and most expensive items aren't necessary for everyday use. Consider olive oil, which can run more than a dollar an ounce and is meant to be used sparingly. Rather than using extra virgin olive oil to fry fish, consider good canola oil, which is cheaper and has a higher burning point. Consumers shopping for high-quality Parmesan cheese should also consider how they'll be using it; if it's going to be blended with other cheeses, it makes sense to pass on paying top dollar for it.
But that won't stop grocers from encouraging foodies to spend too much on high-end products that they'll end up mixing with other ingredients. Case in point: caviar. Many gourmands like adding condiments such as crëme fraiche, hard-boiled eggs and onions to their caviar. But if you are going to do that, you might as well use $41-an-ounce roe from the American paddlefish, not an $840-an-ounce, top-of-the-line Russian caviar.
6. "Looks can be deceiving."
Gourmet food stores make their products look great, but do they taste better? Consider cheese, which can be made to look and smell much tastier than it is. Many cheese merchants employ a process called "cheese cleaning" in which the moldy parts are skillfully shaved away in order to maintain the quality and visual appeal. But some unscrupulous retailers do it to make fast-fading cheese look fresh.
Some merchants will "cut off the surface of the cheese's exposed sides, and it will look and smell fine for that day" but not much longer than that, says Roger Soudah, owner of Say Cheese in San Francisco. "Two days later, well, you'll figure that you didn't eat it quickly enough," he says. Consumers should always ask to taste the cheese before they purchase it.
Softer cheeses are more temperamental than harder cheeses and they tend to go over the edge quicker, says Soudah. But "when purchased from a reliable retailer, the cheese should remain in good condition for at least a week when properly handled at home," he says. "Also, a personal relationship with someone you purchase [cheese] from better ensures that the [cheese] you are buying is in optimal condition."
7. "Mom and Pop are going corporate."
During the past few years, the gourmet food business became so lucrative that big corporations moved in on the action. For example, last year, Campbell Soup Company purchased Ecce Panis, a specialty-bread company.
In practice, what this trend means is that less and less food is being cooked in gourmet stores' back kitchens and served up immediately to shoppers. "Corporate food chains feel they can do gourmet food as well as independent stores. The problem is most corporate stores are commissary kitchens and cook food days in advance," says Joseph Doria, Jr., owner of Grace's Marketplace on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. "Another problem I see is that corporations are more worried about ascetics and food cost, not about taste and quality." Campbell Soup did not return a call for comment before publication.
8. "Free-range chicken isn't all that."
Customers of gourmet food stores can pay two to three times as much for free-range birds as they would for a regular supermarket chicken based on the premise that high-end poultry is healthier and better tasting.
Organic free-range chickens are fed organic products and as a result are supposed to have fewer chemicals and fewer growth hormones, says Ron Tanner, a spokesman for the National Association for Specialty Food Trade. "But some people would say having those things in meats makes them safer because they kill bacteria – just like some people say pasteurized cheeses are better because they kill the organisms in them," he says.
Some experts believe the "free-range" and "organic" distinction to be meaningless. "My position is that free range and organic chickens have not been shown to be microbiologically safer than commercially reared chickens," says Stan Bailey, the director of scientific affairs for the industry division at bioMerieux, a microbiology diagnostic company. "Free-range chickens are exposed to many external vectors which can transmit Salmonella and other bacterial pathogens that commercial chickens are not exposed to." And he adds: "The antibiotics [added to nonorganic chickens' feed] are at such a very small level, and for the most part they are a class of antibiotics not used in humans; they should not be harmful."
9. "Our caviar is counterfeit."
Caviar is typically associated with high-end food, but during the past decade it's been at the center of certain types of frauds.
"There are definitely instances where caviar is sold in the marketplace and it's labeled as one species but it's not," says Dr. Phaedra Doukakis, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. This includes labeling super-cheap roe from the paddlefish as premium caviar, she says.
Doukakis was part of a team that while studying caviar about 10 years ago found that around 25% of the caviar in the New York City market had been mislabeled. Since then, she says, that number should have dropped following the introduction of international regulations – most of which came to fruition when the species that produce caviar were listed as endangered.
Then, there are instances of poaching rings that try to sell caviar illegally. "A lot of farmers I talk to in the U.S. say they get inquiries from people asking for empty tins," which could presumably be used for some kind of laundering, she says.
On a retail level, one way to avoid consuming mislabeled or illegally-sold caviar is to try to purchase it from as direct a source as possible or from a farm that specializes in caviar that originates from one region.
10. "Life is cruel. So are we."
No gourmet grocer worth his imported sea salt would be caught without caviar, foie gras or tender milk-fed veal in stock. But there is nothing appetizing about how the animals are treated in order to yield such delicacies.
Consider what it takes to harvest caviar from sturgeon. It's a painful process, notes Bruce G. Friedrich, vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Massive numbers of sturgeon are pulled out of the water, and their bellies are slit open while they are still alive so the fish eggs can be pulled out," he says.
At the Humane Society of the U.S., a livestock specialist voices a concern about calves that are raised for veal: The animals are often confined in crates barely larger than their own bodies. He also takes issue with the production of foie gras, the duck and goose liver delicacy produced in France, the U.S. and elsewhere. Farmers who raise the animals say they are not mistreated.