The Top 5 Fake Foods You're Probably Eating

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 five of the most common ones:

1. Butter vs. Margarine

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.

Use Butter or Margarine in These Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies. Get the Recipe on Babble!

2. Cow's Milk vs. Soy Milk

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.

Use Soy Milk or Milk to Make Real Chocolate Milk. Get the Recipe on Babble!

3. Saffron vs. American Saffron

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.

Use Saffron or American Saffron in This Saffron Chicken Paella. Get the Recipe on Babble.

4. Real Cinnamon vs. Cassia

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?

Use Cassia or Real Cinnamon in These Cinnamon Roasted Nuts. Get the Recipe on Babble.

5. Real Wasabi vs. Fake Wasabi

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.

Use Real Wasabi (If You Can Find It) or the Fake Stuff in Wasabi Mashed Potatoes. Get the Recipe on Babble.

For more food imposters, when to use them, and where you find them, visit Babble.

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