17 Mar 11 Just how fresh is ‘fresh’ food?
So you’re in your local supermarket, shopping basket in hand, planning what to cook for an informal gathering of friends. A chicken casserole, perhaps, or maybe some fish, with seasonal vegetables on the side, fruit for afters and some nibbles to have first with a drink – olives, perhaps. Whatever you choose, chances are you’ll pay the extra it costs to buy fresh because it looks better, tastes better and is better for you. But is that true?
“Farm-fresh”, “field-fresh” or “fresh from the…” – oven, kitchen or pan – there is, it seems, no end to the linguistic acrobatics food companies will perform to persuade us of the freshness of the food they want us to buy. And it’s not hard to see why. For fresh food sells at prices considerably higher than frozen, canned or jarred equivalents – even when times are tough. Latest figures from the research company Euromonitor International show that after an initial dip at the start of the recession, the volume of fresh food bought by UK shoppers rose by 1 per cent in 2010 – an annual growth rate ahead of pre-recession levels.
It’s all about consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for healthier lifestyles, some suggest. “Most people think fresh food is best nutritionally and health-wise, even if that’s not always the case, and they will pay a premium for what they perceive is better for them even if they don’t understand precisely why, or whether it’s true,” according to Steve Gogerty, chairman of Canned Food UK. Others, meanwhile, more cynically, put the growing prevalence of fresh-related claims down to tighter controls over traditional and more specific food claims such as low-carb and low-fat.
“Fresh is important for consumers because there is a perception that it’s closer to nature, and that makes people feel virtuous about providing ‘real’ rather than ‘processed’ food,” says Charles Banks, director of global food trends analysts The Food People. “In times of austerity, we become more closely connected to what we see as the most important things in our lives, such as friends and family, and our desire for fresh food – along with our willingness to pay for it – is closely connected to that, and that’s what food companies are tapping into.”
Whatever the reason, all agree that the freshness of the food we buy matters deeply to us. It’s why we’ll pay almost two times the price of a frozen margherita pizza for fresh at Sainsbury’s, for example – a pattern echoed across a range of different items from chicken breasts to cod fillets, from green olives to blackberry-and-apple pies. When it comes to our understanding of just what “fresh” means, however, the answer is anything but clear-cut.
Official guidance courtesy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is that food should be labelled “fresh” only when sold a short time after it is harvested or produced. In practice, however, food presented as fresh – either by being overtly labelled or more subtly presented as if such: in a tub at the deli counter, for example – can be anything from a few hours to many months old. It’s all about shelf-life – the period during which food is deemed fit to eat, in which food companies have invested heavily to extend. Technically speaking, if a product is still within its use-by or best-before date, it’s fit to eat. But does that mean it’s fresh?
“Consumers tend to feel convenience products like bagged salads are fresher than they are because of the lengths food companies go to to extend shelf-life – limiting the amount of light products experience in transit, or controlling the atmosphere by adjusting the gases they are exposed to within packaging,” Banks says.
It can be easy to overlook the fact that in one sense, as soon as something is packaged or processed, it’s begun to deteriorate. “There is an argument that as soon as something is harvested or produced, it is decomposing, so in certain product categories it makes sense not to buy fresh at all – frozen peas frozen at the point of harvesting or fish frozen before they are landed being a case in point,” he adds.
Andy Knowles, co-founder and chairman of packaging design company Jones Knowles Ritchie, goes further. “Consumers take a lot of things for granted. They don’t always think rationally about freshness and tend to be more concerned that something’s not stale rather than whether it really is fresh,” he claims. “I don’t think consumers know what ‘fresh’ means.”….