Food & Drink

Your Sushi Is Probably Fake. Here's How to Tell, and What to Do About It.

Sushi roll
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"I hate to tell you this," journalist Larry Olmsted said over the phone, "but the sushi you are ordering is probably fake, or at least mislabeled. And I wouldn't eat it." It's the phrase that could potentially ruin at least 1,000 dinner plans. 

Although this information comes across as a bit hyperbolic, in Olmsted's new book, Real Food/Fake Food, he delves into the topic of fraudulent fish with unprecedented detail. He talked to us even further about what's actually happening inside our rolls, and what the average sushi-eater can do about it.

Sushi in restaurants
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

What does "fake sushi" even mean?

A recent study by nonprofit group Oceana cites that 39% of the restaurants it surveyed in NYC serve fraudulent fish, including every single sushi restaurant the group visited. Olmsted -- and Ocean's nationwide survey -- admit that this eye-widening statistic is not an aberration, but the disconcerting norm. At least at the lower-quality places.  

"Unless you are eating at a very high-end sushi restaurant, you are probably eating some type of fake fish," Olmsted said. "If you can substitute a cheaper product for a more expensive one, it's going to happen all the time. Fraud is always going to be with us, as long as people can sell something cheap, for a higher perceived value."

Species substitution and species alteration (two decidedly dubious-sounding phrases) are common practice at sushi restaurants, and are designed to slash costs on expensive fish. They claim to serve high-quality fish at mostly high-quality prices, but switch the insides out with cheaper options. It's essentially the same as any other kind of counterfeit market. The sushi you are probably eating is like a knock-off, wasabi-covered Rolex. But when that Rolex stops ticking in three weeks, you can just throw it away. These phony fish, however, might have dire consequences for your digestive system. 

Sushi in restaurants
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Things can get dangerous

According to Real Food/Fake Food, "Consumers ordering white tuna get a completely different animal, no kind of tuna at all, 94 percent of the time."

Yikes.

Not only that, but the fish they substitute for tuna, escolar, is commonly referred to as "Ex-Lax fish" in the seafood industry, for what should be obvious reasons. If you are wondering why serving this diarrhea time-bomb is still legal... well, it isn't in many countries (Japan notably one of them) and it was banned in America by the FDA in the early 1990s, only to be unbanned in 1998.

"So when people think they are sick because their tuna has gone bad, it's way more likely they never even had tuna in the first place," Olmsted said. Though escolar-for-tuna might be the most widespread and particularly harmful instance, tilefish (on the FDA's do-not-eat list for children and pregnant women) is often swapped for red snapper or halibut, and tilapia (which is admittedly less harmful, but still shitty) is swapped for tuna, too.

Sushi in restaurants
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

What you can do to protect yourself

The numbers paint a bleak picture, but there are measures sushi fans can take if they want legitimate (or at least semi-legitimate) fish, according to Olmsted. "The broad-stroke solution is to make your own foods. If you control what you are cooking, you can control what you end up eating." That is good advice, but rolling your own sushi roll isn't exactly efficient. 

"For restaurants, you need a healthy degree of skepticism. When I was growing up in New York, sushi was a very rare food -- not on every corner or in supermarkets. You needed to go to a Japanese restaurant. It's not meant to be a food you eat three times a week for lunch, they don't do that in Japan. Eat it better, but less," he said. 

Basically, make it a priority to go to high-end sushi restaurants sparingly to ensure quality, rather than going to lower- or mid-range options frequently. But, for those who don't have the money or the willpower, there are some things to look for in your rolls. 

"I would definitely not order the tuna roll, first of all. But I do love eel. Eel is a cheap fish, it's probably not fake at most places, and it's obvious what it looks like." And nigiri rolls, or even sashimi, tend to be safer options because you can really see what is inside, and big hunks of fish are harder to mask with fakes. "The chopped-up spicy tuna -- that's crazy, you really have no idea what's in it." He also noted, in counter-intuitive fashion, that the cheaper a fish is, the less likely it is counterfeit. So don't be afraid to slum it, in sushi spots, at least.

Sushi in restaurants
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

... Or just treat sushi like fast food!

"A lot of people say, oh, I love eating sushi. But the sushi they are eating is really comparable to McDonald's," said Olmsted. "But those same people would never say 'I love hamburgers, so I eat at McDonald's.'" But then again, a lot of people do eat at McDonald's. A lot of people know McDonald's is not good for them, but they continue to indulge. 

A quick survey in my office revealed that, of the 10 people I asked, all eat sushi at least twice a month, from low- to mid-range joints, and none of them have reported ever getting sick as a result of sushi. All but three of them said they would continue to eat sushi, even if they knew for a fact what they were paying for something technically illegitimate -- unlike Olmsted, who said he mostly steers clear of uncertain sushi all together.

So, essentially, you could either save up for expensive dinners, or treat your sushi like fast food: you know it's not totally good for you -- and what's inside might be kind of a mystery -- but that's part of the deal.  

Just stay away from the tuna, though, lest you blow all your sushi money on Pepto-Bismol. 

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He's probably going to eat less sushi. But not that much less. Follow him: @wilfulton.