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Deconstructing what consumers mean by fresh, less-processed foods

3 min read

Food Retail

Consumers used to think of processed foods as helpful around the kitchen. Major shifts in food culture have changed that thinking, so that many people now view processed food as a path to health conditions including obesity, diabetes, behavioral problems and cancer. As one consumer said in The Hartman Group’s health and wellness research A Culture of Wellness: “I avoid the chemicals in processed food, because you don’t know how the effects will accumulate over time.”

What consumers actually eat is often different from what they aspire to, and processed foods are definitely still on their plates — which becomes clear when they despair about Twinkies not being available for a while and excitedly await new Oreo flavors. People are just more selective, leaning toward beloved brands they know from childhood and products that are less processed than they used to be and have other attributes of what consumers call “freshness.”

The trick is figuring out exactly what consumers mean by fresh, less-processed foods. It is not as simple as cut fruit and bread just out of the oven. To hear some spoofs, it also includes needing to know the name of the chicken you are ordering (a la Portlandia’s popular sketch on Colin the chicken) and fondling your food (from an irreverent food blogger who gained notoriety as the mashup food celebrity chef “Ruth Bourdain”).

But seriously, fresh, less-processed foods do go far beyond ingredients in consumers’ minds. There are three general categories people use to determine whether food is fresh:

  • What’s in it? Consumers look for products with short ingredient lists, healthy nutrients such as fiber and protein, new and interesting flavors and an absence of hormones, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and other negatives.
  • How is it made? Many production methods translate as “fresh” to shoppers, including: Small-batch, local, organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, wild-caught, foraged, non-GMO, heirloom, ancient, fermented, sprouted, sun-dried and freshly prepared. Baked foods are seen as fresher than fried ones.
  • Who made it? People think of food as fresh and less processed when it comes from “real” people (passionate growers and producers), “real” places (local, regional, transparent), direct sources (farmers markets, community-supported agriculture) and sustainable sources (fair supply chain, land stewardship).

Because all those attributes must be communicated by food companies, their secondary job (next to producing and distributing food) has become sharing information about their food and beverages. They share stories through ingredient panels and other labeling, social media and advertising. It is important that they do it clearly and accurately, because the public quickly unmasks disingenuous claims. Even honest efforts can backfire, depending on a company’s history with consumers and whether its claims mesh with what people expect from a given food or industry. Still, open communication is key, and even missteps are forgiven when companies continue the dialogue — because ultimately, what consumers want is fresh food from companies with stories and values that look like their own.


Obtain the report overview and order form at: A Culture of Wellness

As CEO, Laurie Demeritt provides strategic and operational leadership for The Hartman Group’s research and consulting teams. Laurie and The Hartman Group analysts are recognized for their unique ability to blend primary qualitative, quantitative, and trends research to help clients develop successful marketing strategies by understanding the subtle complexities of how consumers live, shop, and use products, and how to apply that understanding in ways that lead to purchase. For more about The Hartman Group, visit the website: or contact Blaine Becker, Sr. Director of Marketing at: [email protected]