I can’t even. What does that mean? Very specifically, it means nothing. It is meant to evoke authenticity: ingredients you are familiar with, so that you feel what you’re buying or eating is healthier, more mindful, more authentic, less processed.
It’s one of those terms that makes my teeth hurt. And because it’s a non-term, because it doesn’t actually mean anything, it’s not actionable. Anyone can use it to mean anything. Hellman’s Mayonnaise (or Best Foods Mayonnaise, on the Left Coast) is called “Real”–I suppose to differentiate it from all those mayo-wannabes out there. There was likely a point early in the availability of commercial mayonnaise when there were not-quite-mayos out there, made with lesser ingredients, but those days are lost in the mists of time, and I, for one, am curious as to what makes Hellman’s realer than Kraft.*
What about “Whole” foods? Not the ubiquitous chain food store, but the term used for foods that are not processed or refined and do not have any added ingredients. That sounds pretty virtuous–but it also includes a whole lot of foods you don’t expect to be processed or refined, like produce or meat (although there is no such thing as Whole Salami, nor should there be). Whole, as a term, has some meaning, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how the food was grown or brought to market or how assiduously you should be washing those veggies to remove chemical additives.
Or take “Natural.” The FDA does not have a specific definition of the word, but it does understand the word, when applied to food, to mean there are are no artificial or synthetic ingredients–no cellulose in your grated cheese to keep it from clumping, for example. What Natural does not cover is the production of the cheese–whether there were pesticides in the feed consumed by the cows which provided the milk which was made into the cheese. Natural is not the same as organic, although people frequently assume it to be so.
Even “Organic,” which is a regulated term with a strict set of meanings, can have a lot of wiggle room. Organic plants are grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic animal products (meat and dairy) come from animals which are given no hormones or antibiotics. Organic producers are inspected. The USDA takes this label seriously. And yet, just like there circles of hell, there are circles of organic-ness.
- 100% Organic means that everything in the product is organic, or comprised of only organic ingredients. Talk about real! If your food qualifies as 100% Organic it can proudly wear a USDA Organic seal.
- Organic means that 95% of the ingredients in the food are organic. You still qualify for that USDA seal.
- Made with Organic Ingredients means there are at least 70% organic ingredients in your food product. So if your toaster waffles say they’re made with organic ingredients, they’re still better than the run-of-the-mill Eggos… I’m not clear whether it’s 70% by volume or by number of ingredients–I suspect the former (If I have 10 ingredients in my toaster waffle, 7 of them qualify as Organic). But there’s a lot of wiggle room.
The terms that really worry me are the ones like “real ingredients,” which suggest all sorts of things but are not required to mean anything. A national bakery-cafe chain is touting “Food as it should be.” A phrase that is inspiring (as is their manifesto of what that means to them) but has no regulatory force. If Panera is acquired by a parent company that decides that using only “clean” food is a little too costly, there’s nothing to say they can’t keep talking about “Food as it should be” while jiggering the ingredients of that food. After all, those ingredients are not imaginary, they’re real.
Remember that “natural” does not necessarily mean healthy. One of the things I learned when researching my book on medieval Italian midwifery is that there are all sorts of plants that grow wild, as natural as can be, that will kill you. After all: hemlock is natural. So are deadly nightshade and foxglove.
“Hemlock! It’s what’s for dinner!” No thanks.
*we will put aside discussions about Miracle Whip, which is a love it/hate topic that rises almost to the level of religious debate.