Is All Truffle Oil Fake?
In the 1990’s truffle oil was refered to by the industry as liquid gold. It was all ‘fake’ – simply olive oil flavoured with the chemical 2,4-dithiapentane, also known as formaldehyde dimethyl mercaptal. A spoonful of this synthetic aroma cost under 40 cents and this was enough to flavour a three-dollar bottle of olive oil. This so-called truffle oil would then sell for around 45 dollars to the unsuspecting public.
The companies were called out by Jeffrey Steingarten in a Vogue article in 2003 and the mood towards truffle oil changed. With consumers getting wise to the artificial nature of their product, the truffle companies had to quickly change their marketing strategy.
Truffle oil needed to ditch its artificial reputation quick, so the larger players made a few changes and they began to promote their new-look truffle oil as ‘natural’. Now ‘natural truffle flavour’ is meant to sound as if it is the flavour of one of nature’s truffles. That’s not what it means in the food industry though. Be careful of how things ‘sound’ when you are dealing with food labels.
Just like artificial flavours, natural flavours are created in the lab. However they are derived from natural sources – plants, animals or tree bark. In the case of natural ‘truffle’ flavour, a perfume is concocted using a mixture of compounds. These compounds have been extracted from various plants such as porcini mushrooms, celery, soy and broccoli. A flavour profile is created which mimics that of truffles and so it is indeed a truffle flavour which is natural. The fact that the flavour is not from truffles is irrelevant -the flavours are not artificial and therefore the company is not breaking any laws. They can legally advertise as selling ‘Natural Black/White Truffle Oil. The high price tag works in the company’s favour. The customer justifies spending 40 dollars figuring that the company must be using real truffles to charge so much money. Not so, they are just making a shedload of money by association.
Huge companies like Urbani and Sabatino have been sued for misleading the public with their use of the word ‘natural’ and what appears to be intentionally deceptive labelling. Unfortunately these cases tend to go in the truffle companies’ favour, with judges ruling that no reasonable member of the public would expect the product to actually contain expensive truffles.
As consumers become increasingly aware of the ‘natural’ ruse, the companies have simply changed tactic once again. The sneaky addition of a few freeze dried, entirely flavourless truffle remnants means that most companies can now advertise their oil as ‘containing real truffle’. It is true there is a tiny scrap of truffle in the bottle. Usually the fungus constitutes 0.1% of the product’s contents. Know that these shavings have an entirely decorative role as dried truffles have little to no aroma. A closer look at the bottle’s contents will reveal that the actual flavour of the ‘truffle oil’ is provided by some form of additive, the wildly misleading ‘natural truffle aroma/ flavour/ essence/ concentrate/ extract.’
And organic truffle oil? The natural flavouring is a mash-up of organic mushrooms, celery and broccoli and the olive oil has an organic label. The two or three bits of truffle floating around will be organic too. Slap a label on it and charge me 50 bucks!