In the last several years, as consumers have become savvier and more educated about the food they eat, words like fresh, local, and artisanal have become the norm in the foodservice industry.

But with many companies throwing these terms around seemingly at will to try to differentiate their brand and resonate with customers, definitions have been grayed and misconceptions have been made. After all, many of these words still go undefined by regulatory bodies (unlike organic, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)).

“There are no federal definitions for sustainable, local, or artisan in regard to use of the terms on food labels,” says Arthur Whitmore, health communications specialist for the Food and Drug Administration. “However, the overarching requirement of federal food-labeling law would apply: Even in the absence of specific regulatory definitions, labels on food products must be truthful and not misleading. The requirement is set forth in Sections 403 (a) and 203 (n) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

To help operators better stick to the truth in their communications—and to clear up misconceptions about the big trends catching hold in the quick-service industry—we’ve asked a number of experts and industry insiders to sum up the definition of the five most popular buzzwords in foodservice: local, fresh, natural, sustainable, and artisan.

Local 'lō-kəl:

Food grown or raised in a particular area or neighborhood no more than 400 miles away from the quick-serve unit where it’s served, but usually closer.

Local, it seems, is everywhere in the restaurant industry. The term shows up in no fewer than three of the top 10 trends in foodservice—including both of the top two—according to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) “What’s Hot in 2013” survey.

“This one is the most popular language conundrum right now,” says Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “The USDA has, in places, referenced 400 miles, and there are some folks who think that’s about right. But it doesn’t pass the smell test for others. Think about 400 miles as a day’s drive, perhaps, and you see where that may come from.”

Using the PMA’s headquarters, Newark, Delaware, as an example, Montreal would be local under the 400-mile definition, as would North and South Carolina, Means says.

“Ask a variety of people here whether they would consider Montreal or the Carolinas as local, and you’ll get a variety of answers, most of which would be ‘no,’” she says. “Others say ‘within our state,’ which is usually from folks trying to market state-specific products. But one could easily argue that New Jersey produce is more local to New York City than produce grown near Buffalo. So, again, this is a case of needing more context.”

Means, who notes that the PMA has no official definition for local, says an interesting idea she’s heard proposed is to require anything dubbed local to bear the location it was produced, letting the consumer decide for himself whether he thinks it is local.

At Chipotle, local foods are products that have been sourced from within a radius of 350 miles.

“Local foods that are raised or grown within close proximity to where they are consumed arrive fresher, so they taste better,” says Chris Arnold, communications director at Denver-based Chipotle. “But local foods also support local communities. We have restaurants all around the country now and think it’s important to support local agriculture in those communities. Farmers are such a critical part of the food system, and maintaining vibrant farming communities is important.”

Subway executives, on the other hand, realize locally sourced can mean anything from within a few miles to within the same state or region, “so we try to avoid using the term with regard to sourcing,” says Elizabeth Stewart, the marketing director who oversees corporate social responsibility efforts for the chain.

“For example, we would rather promote items as being California-grown, when appropriate, so that customers have a clearer feel for where a product comes from,” she says. “We know our customers are increasingly interested in products that help support local businesses, as well as reduce the carbon footprint of the supply chain.” Knowing this, Subway’s nonprofit, franchisee-owned Independent Purchasing Cooperative tries to incorporate locally sourced products wherever possible, provided they meet the chain’s specifications and are cost-effective.

Stewart says customers often think local means an item that comes from their neighborhood market or farm, and that such food supports businesses in the area. She adds that a common misconception is that locally sourced products are plentiful, easy to obtain, and fit every business or consumer need.

David Wright, senior associate at Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Washington–based consumer insights firm, says consumers often link local to artisanal, heirloom, and heritage, and that all typically signify a premium quality. He adds that consumers often don’t take a literal interpretation of local.

“As an example, very few consumers care, or speak about, food miles,” Wright says. “While a great deal of attention focuses on fresh, local is about much more than farmer’s markets. Local is a means of generating community for alienated consumers. Consumers rely on narratives of people, places, and locales to frame the emotional resonance around local.”

Fresh ’fresh:

High-quality foods that are made to order and not altered by processing.

Wright says Hartman Group research on how consumers view healthy eating revealed that healthy foods are associated with fresh, quality, less-processed ingredients.

Fresh is actually a fairly complex construct, since it has a wide range of cues and beliefs that link to it,” Wright says, adding that consumers identify fresh foods by what is in it, how it’s made, who made it, and how it’s packaged. “Fresh is one of the most important cues to quality in food culture today, since its overall meaning ladders up to higher-quality experiences.”

At Charley’s Grilled Subs, “freshness is key to its success,” says Mike Cassar, vice president of marketing. “Many food brands use the phrase made fresh daily, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the ingredients are fresh, just that the food is assembled fresh daily, which can be misleading. But at Charley’s, fresh is a simple and unique concept; it means grilled fresh right in front of you, not just assembled.”

Subway uses fresh in the context of freshly baked bread and cookies, baked in stores several times a day; fresh vegetables on sandwiches or salads; and sandwiches and salads that are made to order right in front of consumers, to their specifications, Stewart says.

“Watching your meal being prepared, the customization and the interaction with the Sandwich Artist preparing your meal—all are cornerstones of the Subway experience,” Stewart says.

She adds that she believes consumers’ definition of fresh is food that is not pre-made or mass-produced in a commissary kitchen, then wrapped and stashed until someone buys it. “A common misconception is that fast food is mass produced, so it can’t be fresh,” she says.

Chipotle’s Arnold says he believes people generally think fresh food is tasty, but that fresh isn’t enough—it’s just a starting point.

“To really serve the best-tasting food you can, you need to understand how animals are raised and how produce is grown, because those variables impact so much on the taste of the food,” he says. “Understanding how food is raised will also help you make better decisions about the food you eat—decisions that positively impact animal welfare, the lives of farmers who produce the food, and the environment.”


Natural 'na-chə-rəl, 'nach-rəl:

Foods existing in or produced by nature and free of man-made, artificial ingredients, including antibiotics and added hormones in animals.

Natural has raised the most confusion among buzzwords, industry experts say.

“I’m not aware of a single definition for this,” the PMA’s Means says. “It’s one of the areas where caution is urged because many marketers use this term, and without more context or detail, it’s really hard to know what it means.”

Arnold says natural is misleading because definitions can widely vary.

“Meat producers call meat natural if it is minimally processed,” Arnold says. “It can still come from animals that are pumped full of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones. Is that natural? When looking at foods labeled as natural, it’s important for people to do a little digging to see what that really means.” Arnold says Chipotle’s naturally raised meat comes from animals raised humanely and without antibiotics or added hormones.

Natural is another term that is second nature to Charley’s, Cassar says. He says the company believes it’s similar to fresh and means real, quality ingredients.

“From the beginning, we built our business on 100 percent all-natural lemonade without artificial flavorings, real whole potatoes, and 100 percent USDA Choice Steak with no fillers,” Cassar says. “Our attention to real, quality ingredients allows us to highlight the natural flavor of the products we serve without the need for overpowering seasoning and marinades. In fact, to this day, our primary seasoning on the grill is salt and pepper.”

Sustainable sə-'stā-nə-bəl:

Food from systems that take care to avoid depletion and damage of the source or the environment.

Another buzzword that is tricky to define is sustainable.

“What really is sustainable? Pasture-based agriculture is proven over time, but isn’t happening on really large scales. Is organic sustainable?” Arnold says. “At Chipotle, we look at whole systems in trying to find more sustainable sources for the ingredients we use, rather than simply finding the easy way, like using organic.”

Arnold adds that organic foods can be great, but he uses Chipotle’s dairy products as an example of when sustainability might be better than organic. The dairy products are made with milk from pasture-raised dairy cattle.

“To us, that seems more important than having cows that are given organic feed but raised in more confined settings,” he says. “Again, it’s about understanding options. Not everything is created equally, even when it’s under the same label.”

“For most Americans, the overarching concept of sustainability is too broad to be relevant on a daily basis—it is largely a word created by the industry, not consumers,” Hartman Group’s Wright says. “Brands and companies that are best able to tap into this consumer desire for reciprocity—the golden rule of treat others as you would like others to treat you—are more readily equated in the minds of consumers as sustainable.”

A common misconception, Stewart says, is that sustainable practices are expensive and impractical, and that sustainability is only important to a small segment of the population. To Subway, sustainability is about being socially responsible, environmentally sound, and economically viable. It’s also about conducting business in a way that considers future generations, Stewart says.

Sustainability is about preserving natural resources and reducing our environmental footprint by conducting business with greater efficiencies,” she says. “For us, sustainability is not a fad but a framework to help us put the right business solutions in place. We believe that sustainability and profitability go hand in hand. Using good, environmentally sound business practices helps increase our franchisees’ profitability, improve our customers’ dining experience, as well as helps protect the planet.”

Artisan 'är-tə-zən, -sən:

High-quality foods uniquely crafted using traditional methods and processes; often produced in small batches.

The NRA believes artisan is generally a reference to small-batch production of a product. “It can also refer to a traditional recipe or process, like a grandmother’s recipe or a 150-year-old process for cheese making,” says Annika Stensson, spokeswoman for the association.

Other experts interviewed for this story believe artisan embodies a product’s story and heritage.

“The authentic meaning and application of artisan alludes to a simpler time when people took pride in their craft. So it’s about something special and unique,” Wright says. “For consumers, artisan is a quality dimension, an authentic narrative about the ingredients used and the special process used to create the products. For consumers, artisan means products made by a real person with care, made by hand in small batches or limited quantities using specialty ingredients. Typically artisan reflects an expertise, a tradition, a passion, or a process.”

Arnold says artisan foods “are made with great ingredients and using time-honored, traditional ways.”

“We have had the pleasure of working with tremendous local food artisans as suppliers and through our Cultivate Festivals, which are day-long celebrations of food, music, and ideas that we have hosted in Chicago and Denver,” he says.

“Artisan foods are in many ways an extension of two things we believe very deeply in: great ingredients from more sustainable sources and classic cooking.”

Consumer Trends, Marketing & Promotions, Story, Charley's, Chipotle, Subway