What the heck does "fresh" really mean?

Supermarkets toss around terms like "natural," "fresh," and "artisan." Here's what they mean and which ones matter.

Published: June 02, 2015 03:45 PM

Store signs and product labels routinely toss around terms like “fresh,” “local,” “artisan,” and “seasonal.” But what do they actually mean? Frankly, not much. Everyone, it seems, has his or her own interpretation.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have standard definitions for any of those labels,” agency spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman told us. When it comes to “local,” she says, some retailers “consider mileage, others by region.  In fact, only the term “organic”—and, in some cases, the word “natural,” are formally defined. Below, experts give their definitions:

ORGANIC This term has teeth. This one does have strict guidelines: The “organic” label certifies that farms and handling facilities comply with USDA regulations that ensure the food was produced with methods that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. 

NATURAL Meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, according to the USDA says. However, the natural label does not regulate farm practices and does not apply to foods other than the three above. So stores and producers can use it to mean anything.

LOCAL Matt Seeley, a produce executive with Nunes Co., a West Coast grower and packer, says, the term is devoid of meaning. “One retailer might define it as products from their state, another might include bordering states as well, and a third, 300 miles from a distribution center. Still others might says anything we can get to our stores within 24 hours of harvest.” Whole Foods says, “we leave it up to our stores. Generally, though, we try to use state lines.” The only way to know for sure what local means is to ask your grocer.

ARTISAN The word conjures images of handmade, small-batch, high-quality products. But then again, fast-food chains like Domino’s sell “artisan” pizza. According to The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm, "artisan" has been co-opted by the food industry and marketers to the point now that its distinction has been diluted. "When companies use 'artisan' they are attempting to create a shortcut to denote higher quality and premium, inverting the original meaning when it's put in the context of fast and mass-produced foods."

SEASONAL “Grapes are in season now, but they’re from Chile,” says Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations for the Produce Marketing Association. “I define seasonal as what’s being grown on farms near me now.”

FRESH According to the Food Marketing Institute, fresh means: Food that’s just picked, gathered, produced, live or unprocessed, and definitely not frozen. Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a food-industry consulting firm, narrowed it down a bit further as it pertains to prepared foods. “Dishes prepared during the day that they’re sold.” 

STORE-MADE (OR HOUSE-MADE) While these terms have recently spawned disagreement, and even a lawsuit, Technomic’s Tristano sees no ambiguity. “Store made would refer to something made within the four walls of the operator’s location,” he says. “Not via off-site commissary.” Earlier this year, a group of New Jersey consumers sued several supermarkets, including Wegmans and Whole Foods, claiming the grocers misled consumers with advertising boasting that breads are “store-baked” or “made in house,” when in fact part of the process took place off site. Executives at Whole Foods refused to comment on the litigation. At Wegmans, Jo Natale, vice president of media relations said, “We haven’t deceived or mislead customers in any way."

—Tod Marks

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