The Wisdom to Know the Difference

What would our economy be like without the work-around – a critical job niche that has employed some of the most creative minds. Intricate cross functional teams immediately spring into action whenever a new law or regulation is introduced, charged with finding and exploiting even the slimmest loophole. Lawyers, bankers and accountants are prominent members of this group; their machinations are most visible when regulators parade deviants in humiliating perp walks down Wall Street. Volkswagen stock plummeted when regulators discovered the creative work-around to car emission regulations. And of course there is the Patriots football team that accommodated pretty boy quarterback Tom Brady by deflating footballs below NFL standards. These work-around teams only became apparent when they got caught.

However, there is a vigorous world of dissemblers and clever wordsmiths whose work is technically compliant with regulations, but who exploit the cracks and crevices inherent in any language. Welcome to the world of food labeling.

Every time I walk into a grocery store, I know that I will be besieged by marketing claims – natural, organic, pure, simple, artisan, decadent, cage-free, free-range. Each of these words has been carefully chosen to lure me into a purchase, often based on my subjective interpretation of keynote words. Cage-free may sound like a kinder, gentler approach to industrial egg production, but not if the chickens are jammed together in a seething mass on a guano filled floor. I may assume that free-range describes chickens peacefully strolling in a verdant barnyard, while the term may only mean that there is a single door in the far reaches of the vast chicken coop that leads out onto a scorching parking lot. And it’s all legal.

Starting in 1938, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to develop standards of identity to protect the consumer. What specifically is jam vs. jelly vs. preserves vs. marmalade? The FDA spent thousands of hours considering these issues, even consulting old family recipes to make the distinction. There are other standards for such commodities as chocolate, butter, bread, cheese and dairy products. Once these terms were established, the work-around food labeling teams got to work. They quickly realized that the standards only applied to nouns. Any related adjective or adverb could be used with impunity, free from FDA oversight. Products described as “chocolately” or “buttery,” are knock-off products specifically missing some defining ingredient. I revel in my smug triumph whenever I bypass these products and outwit the marketers at their own game.

But the FDA can only define a limited number of nouns, so I know that I must be vigilant for unregulated words. “Artisan” is currently enjoying a labeling vogue due to the implication that the food is carefully crafted one small batch at a time by experienced chefs. Domino’s now sells an “Artisan Pizza,” which I assume is a slop-dop affair created by a minimum wage employee and not an “artisan” chef fussing over the freshness of individual spinach leaves. McDonald’s sells some sort of “artisan chicken,” but the weary counter girl in the ill-fitting polyester outfit gave me an indifferent shrug when I remarked that the words “artisan” and “fast food” were mutually exclusive. “You want it or not?” she said.

The word “fresh” enjoys an enduring popularity, based on the logical assumption that fresh food is either recently raw or just dead. The FDA concurs, defining fresh as food “that has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing.” This definition applies both to the product name itself and also to “sensory modifiers,” i.e. tastes fresh, looks fresh, smells fresh, and for completeness sake, feels fresh.

The contest of wills between the work-around labelers and the FDA is probably best illustrated by the saga of the simple commodity of orange juice. In 1961, the FDA conducted hearings on this topic focusing on the recently introduced options of frozen concentrate or frozen and reconstituted orange juice. During the six months of testimony, the FDA had to define such issues as “freshly squeezed.” Is this freshness a sensory modifier, or does “freshly” merely describe the squeezing and not the orange juice itself? Or does this phrase have a broader meaning, i.e. that the orange juice has not undergone any further processing – it’s squeezed and that’s it, no sweeteners added, no nothing? At what point in processing does orange juice lose its essential identity and become an “orange juice product” or an “orange drink?” Ultimately, the FDA developed separate standards of identify for nine different orange juice products.

One of the most significant requirements of these standards was the mandate to include the word “pasteurized” in the label for heat treated products. This regulation specified that the word must be “shown on labels in letters not less than one-half the height of the letters in the word ‘Orange Juice.’” Tropicana was the first to introduce the now familiar jugs of pasteurized orange juice in the 1980s, and their work-around team promptly came up with a solution to this requirement. The FDA naively assumed that the word “Orange Juice” would be prominently displayed on the jug, thus requiring a visible label of “pasteurized.” Instead Tropicana simply established its juice identity with a picture of orange, with “orange juice” in very small letters. This meant that the disturbing word “pasteurized” could be even smaller. Then Tropicana introduced the now widely adopted description of the pasteurized product as “never from concentrate,” essentially demonizing frozen concentrated orange juice and further implying that the cleverly disguised pasteurized product is closer to fresh.

The Tropicana jug hammers home the “fresh” message with a picture of a succulent orange with a straw stuck into it, a small droplet of shimmering orange juice slithering down the side. I pity the frozen concentrate competitors whose frost encrusted cans are simply not large enough or visible enough to accommodate a picture of a dew-dripping orange. Tropicana TV ads further establish the juice’s proximity to “freshness” by showing bouncing oranges crammed into a jug that spins around and magically turns into orange juice.

tropicanaThe ads for competitor Simply Orange feature the gravitas voice of the actor Donald Sutherland who intones, “We start with nothing and then we add nothing – shocking I know … there is no freezing, no flavoring or concentrating.” The absence of freezing and concentrating is another jab at frozen concentrated orange juice, but the “no flavoring” is work-around dissembling at its best. “Never from Concentrate” orange juice first undergoes deaeration to prevent oxidation, thus allowing storage for up to a year in aseptic tank “farms.” Much of the flavor of the orange juice is lost in this process, and thus must be added back prior to bottling. Orange juice processors use “flavor packets” that are developed in separate facilities and can be manipulated to provide a specific taste. Because the flavor packets consist of oils and compounds that are derived from oranges themselves, the FDA does not consider them additives. Hence the claim of “no flavoring” dissembles closer to a lie than the truth, but is perfectly legal according to the FDA.

There is a sticker at the top of Simply Orange jugs that says “fresh taste guaranteed.” This would seem to fall into the category of the FDA prohibition of “sensory modifiers” on the label, but I sense the cleverness of the labelers. This sticker is essentially a “freshness” seal that breaks when the jug is opened. Here is the work-around. A freshness seal is not considered part of the label.

fresh tasteWith freshly opened eyes, I scout out other examples in the grocery store and TV ads. What is my take away-away from all the fish labeled “fresh frozen?” Besides being a fine example of an oxymoron, I conclude that the phrase is merely a work-around contrivance to get the reassuring word “fresh” onto a label. “Farm fresh” is another alliterative descriptor with a vague meaning. The idea that something could not be “fresh” at its presumed point of origin is troubling. I wonder if there is a standard definition of the word “farm.” The fast food chain Culver’s amps up the alliteration by stating that their ingredients are “family farm fresh,” begging the definition of family in our current environment of blending and sexual fluidity.

The restaurants Panera and McDonald’s now advertise products made from “freshly cracked” eggs. Calling on my grade school grammar, “freshly” is an adverb and thus only modifies the adjective “cracked” and not the egg. But how else can you crack an egg? But I broaden my thinking and realize that these chains are struggling to make a distinction between frozen eggs or “liquid eggs.” Subway proudly states that their bread is “baked fresh” every day. Even though this statement is grammatically incorrect (adjectives cannot describe verbs), I know that “fresh” only applies to the baking and not the dough, which could be left over from the last ice age.

The bag of Crystal Farms hash browns in the dairy case states that their product is made from “fresh potatoes,” a confusing concept since one of the singular attributes of potatoes is that they can be stored for months. When are raw potatoes no longer considered fresh? Then I realize Crystal Farms is distinguishing their product from frozen potatoes, or some sort of dehydrated potatoes that have been sculpted back into the shape of hash browns. However, I also notice that the package label states that “sodium bisulfate has been added to maintain freshness,” and I am back in the land of oxymorons.

I spot a tub of processed ham that is labeled “Deli-fresh.” The United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, requires that labels distinguish among fresh, cured or frozen. However, the USDA provides the following exception:

“Generally, trademarks, company names, fanciful names, etc., containing the world “fresh” are acceptable … provided the term is used in such a manner that it remains clear to the purchaser that the product is not fresh.”

Basically, the USDA is saying that the word “fresh” can be used as long as it is clear that it is a lie.

It is autumn and as I walk through the produce department I spot a small jug of truly fresh apple juice with the label “squeezed in the store.” As appealing as this concept is, the container contains the following warning:

“This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illnesses in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems.”

So now I understand. Fresh exists on a spectrum, ranging from its original meaning of raw or just dead, to a meaningless marketing term and finally to a dangerous premise. Where a product falls on this spectrum requires a heroic effort to undo the work-arounds.

However, on most days I look to the grocery store as a respite from critical thinking. My only solution is to chant the serenity prayer as I wander down the aisles.

God grant me:

Serenity to accept the fact that without a relentless and expensive effort to eat local and to eat raw or just dead, I will remain dependent on the industrial food industry. Serenity to accept that I will occasionally succumb to a guilty-pleasure bag of cheddar-flavored potato chips or Stouffer’s frozen spinach soufflé.

Courage to change my causal approach to food selection and courage to engage in a daily contest of wills with food industry’s work-around experts.

Wisdom to know the difference between the dictionary and marketing definition of “fresh” to understand that marketers have manipulated and pummeled the word into meaninglessness, to know that there is something rotten about the designations of fresh like, fresh baked, fresh taste, farm fresh, fresh picked, deli fresh, fresh steamed or fresh frozen. Wisdom to know the difference between regulated nouns and unregulated adjectives and adverbs, to know that chocolately products are not made from chocolate, and that buttery is suspect. Wisdom to know the difference between chicken and a bag of frozen Teriyaki Chick’n whose missing “e” signals that it isn’t even chicken.

Amen to that.
The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

Marketers go to any contrived lengths to add the word fresh to a product’s ****,

So beware of the work-arounds that certainly lurk behind this simple claim.

Fresh describes the baking, not the dough whose origins have been long forgotten

And fresh frozen might only **** the catch was chilled before it became rotten.

I despair over before food labels that raise dissembling to levels never seen before.

So I just chant the serenity prayer, say ****, and only then enter the store.








Answers: Name, mean, amen

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  1. Nancy on November 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Ya did it again, Liza! Another in-depth analysis for buyers beware, calling out those marketing and advertising work-arounders. Well done!

  2. Janet J on February 9, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    You’re so right on target, again. I worked as an inspector in fruit and juice processing plants after graduating from college. It’s quite entertaining to see the colorful descriptions of what I actually saw on a day-to-day basis. I used to think the descriptions of the products had to be made by lawyers.
    It was a great lesson for loophole hunting on labels.


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