What exactly is ‘real food’?

Many food makers and producers have recognized the growing importance consumers place on the degree of processing as an influencer of food purchasing decisions. 

Scrutiny of the ingredient list and the skepticism and concern that comes with seeing numbers and unpronounceable, chemical sounding names means some have taken steps to be more transparent about what these ingredients do in a food to make them seem more ‘real’.

However transparency alone doesn't mean a food is defined by consumers as ‘real food’. 

So if it’s not just about transparency, what exactly is 'real food'?

At a recent event I attended this question was discussed and the definition provided was that ‘real food’ is whatever consumers believe it to be.

This answer got me thinking. 

If the term ‘real food’ is that subjective, all food is potentially ‘real’. If this is the case, it removes any marketing advantage the term might provide. However this is an unlikely scenario as its use is becoming increasingly prevalent in the market place.

So I did a bit of research.

Not surprisingly, there are a variety of definitions of ‘real food’. The most common ones are that real food is food that has undergone little to minimal processing and still retains its nutritional value. It is food that has had nothing removed and nothing added to it. Examples include fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, fresh meat, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.

Food that is not ‘real’ on the other hand is generally considered food that is made from ingredients that have been highly refined to the extent they no longer resemble the original food. Examples include ingredients such as inulin, corn syrup, sweeteners, starches and additives.

An alternative definition is provided by Kimbal Musk, founder of The Kitchen and Next Door, two US based restaurant chains operating under a mission of providing 'everyone with access to real food'.  Musk defines ‘real food’ as:

... food we trust to nourish ourselves, our community and our planet.

If this is adopted as the definition of ‘real food’ it means food that has undergone minimal to no processing may or may not be real food. For example, if food is minimally processed but is grown in a way that harms the community by being produced without returning a fair price to the farmer, or if it’s grown in a way that harms the planet, under this definition, it’s not real food.

On the other hand, food that has been processed but which has been produced in a way that contributes to the community in which it came from, and it’s processing involves practises that nourish the planet, would be considered ‘real food’. An example may be Sweet Earth Foods in the US.

Limiting the definition of ‘real food’ to focus just on the food itself limits our thinking to the end product only. When consumers say they want real food, it’s likely it's Musk's definition they are most aligned with.

For those using the term ‘real food’ in marketing, the definition of what this means is worth considering carefully and being completely clear about. 

One of the key battles facing food makers and producers today is the lack of consumer trust in the food supply. Developing and marketing ‘real foods’ is certainly one way to address this and to engage consumers in a way that also contributes positively to their health. However being clear on how the term is defined for your business, and ensuring this is communicated and understood throughout all layers of the company is essential to working with integrity and developing and building long term consumer loyalty and trust.