The Meaning of "Fresh" and Other Fast-Food Myths

A while back I was sitting the Cleveland airport and hungry after repeated delays.  Not wanting to miss a flight that would surely not have left on time, I wandered to the food court for sustenance.  Being on the road, among almost all things in life, made me crave something fatty and salty so I settled for a lackluster Fuddrucker’s burger with fries.  As I sat down to eat, I noticed across the court the sign for Sbarro that proclaimed “Fresh Italian Cooking” and began to ponder on how such a thing could really exist coming from a fast food chain in an airport.

What is fresh?  Does it mean not frozen, not processed, or organic? Subway wants us to “eat fresh” and has made millions selling it to us, yet their meats are heavily processed and their bread dough made thousands of miles away to only be baked at the final location.

This article I found in Slate sums up the mantra of fresh pretty well: 

"I think it's meaningless, almost, now," says Mark Crumpacker, the chief marketing officer with Chipotle. "You could claim that something very heavily processed was fresh, I guess. I don't think there are any rules around 'fresh.' You can just say it with impunity. And I think lots of people do."

In other words, fresh doesn’t mean shit.  Just like “all natural,” it is a marketing phrase allowing companies to continue to sell the same old unhealthy food products while putting a healthy spin on the consumers’ view of it.  There is absolutely no regulation or standard for what most terms we apply to food should mean.  Premium foods aren’t necessarily premium.  Grade A means little when no one would possibly imagine selling a Grade B product.  A rare exception I can think of is organic - which does have a set of (loose) standards defined by the USDA on what can go into a food to receive that label.  Other labels enforced by that agency like “grass-fed” or “cage-free” differ so little from convention as to be almost meaningless.  The difference between sticking a bird in a crate with the square footage of a piece of printer paper and cramming the same number of birds into the equivalent lack of space without cages separating them (but with their beaks cut off to they don’t peck each other to death) really doesn’t match the image communicated to the customer.

The other part of Sbarro’s fallacious slogan was that their food is Italian, which it isn’t.  I’ve been to Italy, and they don’t make New York style pizza by the slice loaded with sausage or extremely mediocre salads with vegetable oil.  One could even contest the “cooking” part of the slogan, given that their food is baked in an oven.  

The fast food industry relies on consumers’ perception of health, which changes over time.  We as a society used to think that hamburgers were good for us, and fed liquor to sick children in the form of hot toddies.  The jury is still out on butter - not on deliciousness but on health impacts.  Fast food restaurants somehow seems to fit our model of health with each new trend and this is not because they change their menu substantially but how they market it.  Even the famously healthy chain Chipotle has stirred controversy when they began labeling their GMO ingredients.  Many people were shocked because GMO and healthy often seem at odds, but that hides how prevalent GMOs are in the rest of the food system.  Kudos to Chipotle for being brave enough to be the first honest chain.

The only real way to know what is in your food is to be actively engaged in its production or the local food system.  Local doesn’t mean much either, considering that the general convention is to apply that definition to anything coming from within 400 miles, but it is better and easier to hold accountable.  Start a garden or go to the farmer’s market if you can.  The more you know your food the more it can nourish you.

Zach Rubin, 2018