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Is your lobster fake? 5 ways to tell if your food is real

Don't get cheated! Follow these five tips to make sure you get real lobster every time.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Before you drop big bucks on a fancy lobster dinner this Valentine's Day weekend, you may want to brush up on a little marine biology and check out our tips for how to make sure you're getting a real lobster.

Don’t get cheated! How to tell if you’re eating real lobster
Lance Booth / TODAY

Inside Edition recently released a report accusing several restaurants across the country of using cheap seafood substitutes in so-called lobster dishes. Dishes from 28 restaurants were sent to labs for DNA testing; 35 percent of samples indicated cheap fish substitutes like whiting and haddock.

For example, a test of the Lobster Salad Roll at Nathan's in Coney Island, Brooklyn, indicated that the meat was whiting, an inexpensive fish. A group that spoke on behalf of the restaurant told Inside Edition that the recipe is a seafood mix that includes lobster and whiting. Another test of a lobster ravioli from a restaurant in New York's Little Italy found only cheese with no lobster present; the manager did not wish to comment to the show.

When the lobster bisque from Red Lobster was analyzed, Inside Edition reports that two out of three cups of the chain's Lobster Bisque contained a mixture of lobster and langostino, and one contained only langostino. The Inside Edition exposé online reads, "One sample included only langostino, a less expensive seafood more closely related to hermit crab than lobster..." Not exactly true: langostino is a type of lobster, confirms Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute and professor at the University of Maine.

The chain disputes the accusation that the soup did not contain lobster, calling it "luck of the ladle." A Red Lobster spokesperson told, "We are not happy with how the story was covered—it was misleading. We question the validity of Inside Edition's test where they found one cup of bisque that only contained langostino lobster." Still, in light of the Inside Edition story, the chain plans to revise the menu to state that the bisque contains both Maine lobster and langostino lobster.

To be fair, Red Lobster has maintained transparency about using different kinds of the crustacean, including North American, Maine, langostino and rock lobsters, and its menus are relatively clear in most cases—a current Lobsterfest special is clearly called out as "Langostino Lobster–Topped Tilapia with Mushroom Cream Sauce."

While the Inside Edition report made some eye-opening discoveries, several talks with top fishermen, chefs and lobster experts reveal that the issue is more complex. "In the story that's been brought to light, there are two separate issues," says Barton Seaver, director of Healthy and Sustainable Food Programs at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a former chef. "The first issue is that there are dozens of species of lobster, so the question of what 'real' lobster is can be confusing. The second: diners are not empowered with enough information."

However, if you read your menu carefully and ask your servers the right questions, you can make sure you're ordering the good stuff. To be a more informed lobster consumer, no matter where you eat, here's how to tell if you're eating 'real' lobster:

1. Choose dishes where the lobster is simply prepared

Think of it this way: If you have a dry-aged, grass-fed ribeye steak, you're probably not going to grind it up and make it into Sloppy Joes. Same goes for a top-of-the-line lobster. "The amazing sweetness that sets a Maine lobster apart from some of its shellfish brethren is subtle and should be eaten with sauces and dressings that complement the meat, not overpower it," chef Matt Ginn of EVO Kitchen + Bar in Portland, Maine, and the 2015 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year. "Look for simple dishes that let the product shine."

2. Claws are a good sign

If you see a large, red intact claw at least 2 to 3 inches in length, then chances are pretty good that you've got a real lobster that's either from Maine or Europe. But there are dozens of kinds of lobsters and plenty of varieties that don't resemble each other. Langostino lobsters are small and look more like shrimp. Spiny or rock lobsters from North Carolina, Caribbean spiny lobsters, Australian rock lobsters, New Zealand rock lobsters do not have claws but their tails are considered a delicacy. If the tail meat is served in very large chunks, that's also a good indicator that you've getting the real deal.

3. For ravioli, seafood salads and bisques, all bets are off

Just as there is "mechanically separated chicken," there is "minced lobster meat," made by spinning the lobster shells and extracting meat from parts like the legs, Bayer says. Depending on your point of view, that's not all bad—it's less waste—but let's face it, you're not likely getting those succulent claws and tails in lobster ravioli. "I would avoid ordering menu items with lobster meat chopped very small, unless you are at a serious culinary destination," Ginn says.

4. Look for the words "Maine lobster" on the menu

The FDA requires that restaurants label what species of lobster they are using, Seaver says, but the word 'lobster' still represents an entire range of options. We think of Maine lobster as the pinnacle of luxury for a good reason: "Maine lobster tastes so good in large part because the state's water is so pristine," says Captain John Nicoli, a lobster expert, lecturer and boat guide. The coast is virtually industry free, and it's also the receptacle for polar currents that bring colder, more oxygenated water, loaded with nutrients like krill and plankton, he says. It also has lots of rocks, where lobsters love to live.

5. If it seems too cheap to be true, it probably is

If you're in Maine or another location where lobsters are plentiful, real lobsters will be inexpensive in comparison to the rest of the country. "Otherwise, choose your dining destination wisely," Ginn says. "A lot of it comes down to dining at reputable establishments and chefs who cook with integrity and care. Read reviews and understand the value that the restaurant's chef places on selecting ingredients."