Slate has a really interesting long-read this week about the so-called “Fresh Wars,” a dissection of the ever-evolving use of the word “fresh” in advertising campaigns and on menus at fast-food restaurants. You should head over there to read it (really, you should—it’s a terrific read), but here’s the basic conclusion: that the word “fresh” is absolutely, positively, utterly meaningless.
The Fresh Wars have advertisers, marketers, and chefs embroiled in a battle for the title of freshest American fast food—and for the business of an increasingly sophisticated and conscientious populace of eaters.
…The skirmishes emphasize the extraordinary value of one abstract concept for an industry desperate to capitalize on health and sourcing trends without actually having to invest in high-quality ingredients. Fresh doesn’t have to be low-calorie or even especially nutritious—a burrito with ingredients prepared on-site at Chipotle may pack three times the calories of a burger. Nor does fresh require pathologically locavorian supply-chain standards: As Arby’s has revealed, a sandwich from Subway might contain cold-cuts processed, packaged, and shipped from a centralized facility in Iowa. Better yet for retailers like Taco Bell, Domino’s, and Arby’s, the mere implications of freshness can be sold at a premium to new customers who otherwise might have avoided those chains’ wares altogether. The only unabashedly pure thing about the concept of fresh is its subjectivity.
Depressing, no? I think, besides enraging us about the absurdity of modern advertising, it’s a reminder to us health nuts that labels often don’t tell the whole story. That just because a product comes emblazoned with a buzz word (“whole grains!” “all-natural!” “hormone-free!” “fresh!”), the onus is still on us to be smart, educated consumers. And, most important, that if it seems to good to be true, well … you get the picture.