The Trouble with Truffle Oil (Farts and Formaldehyde)

Categories: Wine Time

truffle oil.jpg
Photos by Jeremy Parzen.
The pseudo-food product in the image above purports to be oil (olio) and truffle (tartufo). In fact, it does not contain truffles but rather farts and formaldehyde.
People, I'm sorry to break it to you, but there are just no two ways about it: Truffle oil (or truffled oil) is a sham, it's bad for you and it's just downright evil.

I'm currently traveling in Italy, where the world's most famous truffles are foraged. When I received an e-mail from my editor here at Eating...Our Words asking me if I'd like to share my thoughts on the big bowl of wrong that is truffle oil, I stopped at one of Italy's famous roadside Autogrill franchises and picked up the above bottle of this pernicious pseudo-food product for edification's sake.

The fact that truffle oil is made with 2,4-Dithiapentane (a petroleum product) and not with truffles has been widely documented in contemporary gastronomy. (See this celebrity chef's abjuration of truffle oil published in 2007 by The New York Times, "Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles.")

"Prepared by the acid catalyzed addition of methyl mercaptan to formaldehyde" (according to the Wiki entry), 2,4-Dithiapentane chemically reproduces the aroma of truffles. If you've ever smelled mercaptans, you know that they smell like farts. So if you want to consume olive oil that's been infused with fart aroma and one of the most toxic substances commonly used by humankind, I can only say de gustibus non est disputandum.

truffle oil ingredients.jpg
You'll note in the above detail of the label that the ingredients include "truffle aroma" and olive oil. But if you look carefully at the front label of the bottle, you see that it depicts white truffles from Alba (Piedmont, Italy) with the caveat that "the image is not representative of the contents." By law, the producer is required to write that because it doesn't contain truffles!

But beyond the fact that truffle oil is an entirely duplicitous and unwholesome pseudo-food product, there is another and equally important reason why it should be avoided.

Whether black from central Italy (most famously Umbria) or southern France or white from Alba (northwestern Italy), truffles are among the world's most expensive and coveted foods, often costing thousands of dollars per pound (depending on their pedigree and market demand).

The snake-oil salespeople who hawk truffle oil play on the bourgeoisie's tireless desire to obtain out-of-reach luxury products and the social status that they bring. There's something about truffles that makes them supreme among consumer goods in their capacity -- like caviar or Champagne -- to make people feel rich. The very notion of truffle-infused oil is a perversion of one of the world's greatest (and, many would say, sublime) sensorial experiences. And it represents a subjugation of the human spirit and condition. In other words, it's just plain ideologically wrong. I would even go as far as to say evil.

Don't waste your time and palate with french fries doused in a petroleum product. Go to one of the handful of Houston restaurants that know how to properly store and serve truffles and splurge on a plate of risotto or scrambled eggs topped with two or three truffle shavings. It may set you back $100 or so, but -- if they're stored and served correctly -- you'll find the experience to be truly priceless.

See the Wiki entry for truffles for some background on the "diamond of the kitchen."



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43 comments
jaredhaer
jaredhaer

It makes me sad that you think health issues are a joke and that it is reasonable to make unsupported  health related claims in your article. Jeremy Parze, it's been over two years since you wrote this article and it still bums me out with it's irreverent anti-intellectual tone. Please don't make unsupported health claims in your writing.

jacobfabien77
jacobfabien77

People don t like to know the truth...

i hate mercapten in Wine and if i dare serve a wine with a slight touch of it ,my customers return it...So ,why do they love the fake truffle oil(or infused oil) so much? maybe we have to many hipsters in our society .

It s like taking a grape juice and call it malbec or properly call it INFUSED MALBEC grape juice.

BTW great article,very informative as usual..

thank you

 

DoBianchi
DoBianchi

I'm always surprised by the shrill of vitriol and the petty mudslinging heard in the comment section here. 

 

I stand by my post 100%. I don't like truffle oil and I think it's a sham. There's no back pedaling. 

 

I don't like Alinea either. These are personal preferences. And we are all entitled to our preferences, aren't we? 

 

Calling the mercaptans used to make truffle oil "farts" was a form of hyperbole, an ironic figure used to make a point. (Mercaptans are not a "hot topic" in wine, btw.)

 

The fact is that there are no truffles in "truffle oil." Most people don't realize that when they eat "French fries with truffle oil." And as Maurizio points out below, even truffle-infused oil — by virtue of the high price of truffles — is a sham. 

 

I think the more interesting question (at this point) is: why are you all so upset by this revelation? 

 

Last night when I wrote "thanks for reading and commenting," I was entirely earnest. 

 

This morning (it's morning in Italy right now), I can't help but ask myself: why do you bother reading my posts if they upset you so much? Drizzle away and eat at Alinea (if you can afford it). 

 

 

maurizio.fv
maurizio.fv

Jeremy, people should know that, as white truffles cost more than 3.000 € per kilo, and it needs AT LEAST 200 grams to aromathized (in a minimum way) half liter of olive oil, it is REALLY impossible to produce a real truffle oil and sell it for only 50 $. And that's why truffled oils are fake, and not good for health. After eating, people feel the fake flavour for many days, as it is not organic product, impossible to be digested and metabolized... In Rome they say "me se ripropone" !!It is not TRUFFLE OIL, it is "TRUFFA OIL" 

flagger
flagger

Irony, really? Not face saving?

I kinda had the idea that you had been reading about mercaptans, a hot topic in the wine industry, and had a knee jerk reaction seeing the word appear in the wiki entry you cited about truffle oil.

Call me crazy, just not irony impaired.

DoBianchi
DoBianchi

if I may, I'd like to quote two of the comments here. 

 

1) from bodl: People are taking this column very seriously. I'm pretty sure Jeremy writes this stuff as parody of foodies, and wine snobs in particular. I knew his column was full parody when he posted wine pairing that go with "sauce" - molé.

 

2) from anonymous professor quoted by Metternich: Reacting formaldehyde and mercaptans? it sounds rather repulsive but nature does it all the time again when foods are heated. In the case of a man-made chemical reaction, one must insure that all of the formaldehyde is reacted - it is not a nice chemical. But oddly enough, nature may leave some formaldehyde in a food but people cannot. Nature produces carcinogens that we eat happily but we cannot add the same carcinogens to foods.

 

I hate to bring up 9/11 here (I lived in NYC at the time) but I can't help but think of all the pundits who wrote that in the wake of the tragedy, "irony is dead." It is the anniversary of the tragedy, after all.

 

I'm sorry if I shock some people's love for truffle oil. Some of my best friends love truffle oil. And that's cool with me. It just so happens that I don't like it. I can't stand it, to tell the truth. It smells friggin' nasty to me and I have never understood why people like it. 

 

It also happens that I can't stand barriqued (read oaky), overly concentrated and acidity-deprived Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa. I write ironically about that as well: to make a point... 

 

I really appreciate everyone's insights and comments and thoughts here. The GREAT value in irony, satire, and parody is the way it can reshape discourse. That's what I try to do with these posts.

 

thanks for reading... (writing from Lecce today and sorry to take so long to respond but the internet sucks in Shitaly [WARNING: IRONY]). 

bodl
bodl

People are taking this column very seriously. I'm pretty sure Jeremy writes this stuff as parody of foodies, and wine snobs in particular. I knew his column was full parody when he posted wine pairing that go with "sauce" - molé. He is hilarious! Keep it up, Jeremy!

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

Jeremy, I respect your knowledge about wine, but this post makes me scratch my head.  The entire point of truffle oil is to be able to infuse a dish with the aroma of truffles without having to price it at $100.  While I love fresh shaved Alba truffles over risotto, they're not always in season, nor do I always want to invest that much in an appetizer.  I've had plenty of dishes that I suspect are flavored with truffle oil, and as with any other ingredient, sometimes the results are pleasing, sometimes they're not.

 

Example:  I've had the truffled mac and cheese at @TonyVallone - it's delicious, and it's $9.  I don't have first-hand knowledge, but I'd be willing to bet that it's flavored with truffle oil.  In the NYT times article you cited, Grant Achatz mentions that he uses truffle oil, too.

 

Your dire warnings about mercaptain and "one of the most toxic substances" is just silly.  Table salt can be synthesized from highly corrosive chlorine and highly reactive (to the point of being explosive) sodium.  Yet salt is not only harmless, but a required nutrient.  My guess is that truffle oil is harmless as well, but if that's erroneous, I'd appreciate a reference.

 

 

Metternich
Metternich

Here's a note, slightly edited, about this post from a food scientist and Univ. professor/dept head:

 

I assume that the authors reference to formaldehyde and farts (a mercaptan) is that these chemicals are used in the synthesis of the 2,4dithiapentane - the chemical responsible for truffle aroma. I do not know that this is the case but he may be correct. People like to take a view of things and can twist them to reflect their particular biasis. It is interesting that the public is more likely to believe the outrageous than the mundane facts and thus we get people ranting and raging .. .and they gain an audience - status for it - odd to me.

If the author wishes to ban all food substances that contain mercaptans, he would have to ban all foods that are heated in any manner for the proteins in foods react with sugars in the foods to yield mecaptans. So lets get rid of all heated foods - great idea! Reacting formaldehyde and mercaptans? it sounds rather repulsive but nature does it all the time again when foods are heated. In the case of a man-made chemical reaction, one must insure that all of the formaldehyde is reacted - it is not a nice chemical. But oddly enough, nature may leave some formaldehyde in a food but people cannot. Nature produces carcinogens that we eat happily but we cannot add the same carcinogens to foods - I like that but but it seems again ... odd. Why should we allow people to eat foods containing carcinogens naturally? That answer is easy, if we banned all foods that contain harmful substances, we would have nothing to eat. Strange world we live in.  

But back to topic, the author wishes to rant and rave, exaggerate to be heard, be absurd and perhaps believed over "truffle oil", that is his right. I think it is misleading but labeled consistent with law and is not harmful. what can I say?

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

"that's been infused with fart aroma and one of the most toxic substances commonly used by humankind"

 

Are you just trying to imply health hazards where none actually exist? Is there research on the health hazards of truffle oil? Or is this just another case Sodium (explosive in water) + Chlorine (Poisonous) = NaCl (Table salt)?

TheBurgerGuys
TheBurgerGuys

@EatingOurWords could it be that it's in no way real!!

wynkoutloud
wynkoutloud

@EatingOurWords you won't talk me out of liking that pizza @ Dolce Vita. ;D

drwave
drwave

@roseandisabel Pretty horrifying, eh?

RealHux
RealHux

@roseandisabel So wait... Remy was putting farts in Gusteau's recipe? No wonder Colette freaked out!

wisequark
wisequark

@drwave it depends. Some truffle fries are made with the oil taken from canned truffles and are quite good. But way more expensive.

Truffle_Aficionado
Truffle_Aficionado

So what about the high end truffle oil found at places like Sur La Table that only list extra virgin olive oil and truffles as ingredients? If you see them in person the label does not list any sort of flavoring or additive and there are pieces of truffle in the bottle. I assume with all the labeling laws of the US they would have to put "truffle flavoring" or "aroma of truffle" (such as the bottle shown above) if in fact it was using the aforementioned chemical. I believe the one I have linked is purely olive oil infused with real truffle. Tell me otherwise if that is not the case. 

 

http://www.amazon.com/Tartufi-Fassia-P-A-Q-Organic-Truffle/dp/B006ZB89RY

 

vonHaupstadt
vonHaupstadt

Like the methane in Jeremy's farts, this piece is little more than inflammatory, and I would suggest that there might indeed be 'two ways about it', truffle oil that is. I humbly suspect that if you ask someone who's more credentialed than Jeremy in chemistry, food science and flavoring, you might get that other side. You might not agree with it but there are two sides. After all here's the meat, or amuse bouche rather, of Jeremy's argument:

"People, I'm sorry to break it to you, but there are just no two ways about it: truffle oil (or truffled oil) is a sham, it's bad for you, and it's just downright evil."

 

A sham? Maybe, although as he points out, this flavoring thing is pretty 'widely documented' and well-known among foodies and those traveling in gastro circles. To those caught unaware, maybe there is grievous damage done if they think they're eating oil suffused with truffles. So ok, sorta.

 

Bad for you? So he says, without presenting any evidence; but I suppose that informing us that the flavoring agent is a 'petroleum' product is damning enough; leave it to the readers to connect the dots, and reach a similar conclusion based on popular opinion. Maybe some weak legs there, which is why he later shifts to 'unwholesome' versus 'bad for you'.

 

Downright evil? Uh, why exactly is that Jeremy? Because it's not real and "represents a subjugation of the human spirit and condition". Really? So, by providing us a flavor short-cut, and sparing us the substantial cost of real truffles, the food industry is dominating and overpowering us? Even if we're aware of the facts and choose to use it? And never mind that it doesn't depress truffle prices or damage truffle farmers and their prized hounds and pigs. (That might qualify as evil). Anyway, I was beginning to suspect my grandmother's baking because, living in rural Kentucky, she was deprived of almonds and lemons and opted for McCormick's artificial flavorings instead. 

 

Teacup tempest anyone?

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

Speaking of "the bourgeoisie's tireless desire to obtain out-of-reach luxury products and the social status that they bring," this post smacks of "let them eat cake," if they can't afford to eat $100 shavings of black truffles.  But thanks for the explanation of the manufacturing process.  There may be people that don't know it yet.

paval
paval topcommenter

I always recommend to the customers of our small gourmet store in the Village, to buy a good olive oil, the one they like the most, buy some truffle paste, we sell one that is only made of truffles, salt and some oil, and mix it themselves as needed. True, a good olive oil and the truffle paste may set you back about 50 USD or more in total, but at least you have a true product and fresh made. And as I read without petroleum.

 

HoustonBrooke
HoustonBrooke

@HoustonPress You hashtag farts like we're actually going to think, 'hm, let's see what else people are saying about farts'.....

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

Kudos to the editor for following up on my request.  And thank you, Jeremy, for calling truffle oil out for what it is.  Hopefully restaurants will stop putting this crap (smelling stuff) on their food.

 

truculence
truculence

Da Marco, here I come!

 

But curious, are you saying that truffle oil doesn't even come to close to replicating the flavor/aroma profile of a truffle? That's the aim after all, rather than to fool people into thinking they're having truffles.

DoBianchi
DoBianchi

@Michael_MonteB honestly I've been nonplussed by the vitriol in the comments. I didn't expect that @eatingourwords. TY for kind words. :)

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

 @DoBianchi

 "I think the more interesting question (at this point) is: why are you all so upset by this revelation?"

One:  Not nearly as upset as you were when you wrote the original post, not NEARLY; and TWO:  this is not a revelation to anyone here apparently, certainly not to me. 

Carrry on..."waives hand dismissively."

Opaco
Opaco

 @DoBianchi

I'm surprised you're surprised. Your screed goes a little beyond "I don't care for it, it's not my preference" type of thing. You set yourself up as the expert intervening in an argument by claiming 'there are no two ways about it': truffle oil is "a sham, it's bad for you and it's just downright evil." Followed by some chemistry and sociology lessons. Then, you imply the post was irony to spur conversation. Now, you say you aren't back-pedaling, you meant it all. Are we not right to be a little confused?

 

 

DoBianchi
DoBianchi

 @maurizio.fv thank you, Maurizio, for taking the time to post this. Truffle oil is a fraud, no matter how you slice it. 

maurizio.fv
maurizio.fv

I mean "white truffle oil"black truffles are cheaper, but not so rich in perfumes 

Opaco
Opaco

 @flagger

Mercaptans *was* a hot topic in the wine biz back in 06-07, not so much now my kids tell me.

dunstan
dunstan

 @DoBianchi Proud of you Jeremy! After your long-form, slow-food diatribe against truffle oil gets shot down, you adopt the Herman Cain strategy of "hey, I was just kidding". Great stuff!

Houstess
Houstess

 @DoBianchi A lot of folks feel the same way about cilantro.  Easy enough to just avoid it.

Metternich
Metternich

 @DoBianchi Wow, if that was irony,  then I feel a sudden sadness for FattyFatBastard. I'm pretty sure he wasn't being ironic with his hyperbole. Or I suppose he could say the same thing, conveniently.

DoBianchi
DoBianchi

 @HTownChowDown  Albert, just a little bit of humor here to make a point: I don't care for so called truffle oil; I don't consume foods that have been flavored with truffle oil; to me truffle oil smells nasty. I wrote this post while we were staying at a winery's farm house in Tuscany. The winemaker's son came to visit us at the house and was curious why I had a bottle of "olio tartufato" on the table. I explained and he commented by noting that no one ever considers the quality of the olive oil used in truffle oil. He claimed that in most cases, the quality of the oil is the worst part of the equation. Just some humor here... is irony really dead?  

estarLA
estarLA

@vahnee haven't! sounds interesting!

HoustonPress
HoustonPress

@HoustonBrooke I just searched the tag too. Rough stuff.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

 @FattyFatBastard Restaurants will keep putting it on their food as long as people like it and order it.  When will you be demanding the removal of foie gras from our four tops here in Houston?  Hmmmm?

Opaco
Opaco

 @DoBianchi  @HTownChowDown 

"I explained and he commented by noting that no one ever considers the quality of the olive oil used in truffle oil. He claimed that in most cases, the quality of the oil is the worst part of the equation."

 

Now that IS funny. When making a flavored oil, I would think that the most important aspect of the base oil is it's flavorlessness, not it's quality or ph level etc.

vahnee
vahnee

@estarLA omg, you will never look at oil the same way again. :-)

HoustonBrooke
HoustonBrooke

@HoustonPress Eww. I don't need the encouragement. I had Indian food for lunch, too.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

 @Jalapeno

 No, I don't think it poses a health hazard.  What i do realize is that it isn't "truffle" oil at all.  Like it all you want, but call it something different, like "oil de toilet" or something. 

 

Unfortunately, it has been shown time and time again that America doesn't care what you label things.  Therefore, I feel the need to call out "kobe" beef, champagne, parmegiano reggiano, etc. when they are raved about.  That said, at least those former three have the basic ingredient involved.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

 @FattyFatBastard Well, then, if you are as convinced as Jeremy is that I am being poisoned by a toxic substance on my pizza at DaMarco's sister restaurant Dolce Vita, I suggest someone notify the FDA.  Otherwise, these stories mean only that some people like truffle oil and others no not.  Long story short.

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