Just how fresh is our 'fresh' food?

We pay more for produce we think comes straight from the supplier – but some of it is months old. Meg Carter sorts the new from the mould

So you're in your local supermarket, shopping basket in hand, planning what to cook for an informal gathering of friends. A chicken casserole, perhaps, or maybe some fish, with seasonal vegetables on the side, fruit for afters and some nibbles to have first with a drink – olives, perhaps. Whatever you choose, chances are you'll pay the extra it costs to buy fresh because it looks better, tastes better and is better for you. But is that true?

"Farm-fresh", "field-fresh" or "fresh from the..." – oven, kitchen or pan – there is, it seems, no end to the linguistic acrobatics food companies will perform to persuade us of the freshness of the food they want us to buy. And it's not hard to see why. For fresh food sells at prices considerably higher than frozen, canned or jarred equivalents – even when times are tough. Latest figures from the research company Euromonitor International show that after an initial dip at the start of the recession, the volume of fresh food bought by UK shoppers rose by 1 per cent in 2010 – an annual growth rate ahead of pre-recession levels.

It's all about consumers' seemingly insatiable appetite for healthier lifestyles, some suggest. "Most people think fresh food is best nutritionally and health-wise, even if that's not always the case, and they will pay a premium for what they perceive is better for them even if they don't understand precisely why, or whether it's true," according to Steve Gogerty, chairman of Canned Food UK. Others, meanwhile, more cynically, put the growing prevalence of fresh-related claims down to tighter controls over traditional and more specific food claims such as low-carb and low-fat.

"Fresh is important for consumers because there is a perception that it's closer to nature, and that makes people feel virtuous about providing 'real' rather than 'processed' food," says Charles Banks, director of global food trends analysts The Food People. "In times of austerity, we become more closely connected to what we see as the most important things in our lives, such as friends and family, and our desire for fresh food – along with our willingness to pay for it – is closely connected to that, and that's what food companies are tapping into."

Whatever the reason, all agree that the freshness of the food we buy matters deeply to us. It's why we'll pay almost two times the price of a frozen margherita pizza for fresh at Sainsbury's, for example – a pattern echoed across a range of different items from chicken breasts to cod fillets, from green olives to blackberry-and-apple pies. When it comes to our understanding of just what "fresh" means, however, the answer is anything but clear-cut.

Official guidance courtesy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is that food should be labelled "fresh" only when sold a short time after it is harvested or produced. In practice, however, food presented as fresh – either by being overtly labelled or more subtly presented as if such: in a tub at the deli counter, for example – can be anything from a few hours to many months old. It's all about shelf-life – the period during which food is deemed fit to eat, in which food companies have invested heavily to extend. Technically speaking, if a product is still within its use-by or best-before date, it's fit to eat. But does that mean it's fresh?

"Consumers tend to feel convenience products like bagged salads are fresher than they are because of the lengths food companies go to to extend shelf-life – limiting the amount of light products experience in transit, or controlling the atmosphere by adjusting the gases they are exposed to within packaging," Banks says.

It can be easy to overlook the fact that in one sense, as soon as something is packaged or processed, it's begun to deteriorate. "There is an argument that as soon as something is harvested or produced, it is decomposing, so in certain product categories it makes sense not to buy fresh at all – frozen peas frozen at the point of harvesting or fish frozen before they are landed being a case in point," he adds.

Andy Knowles, co-founder and chairman of packaging design company Jones Knowles Ritchie, goes further. "Consumers take a lot of things for granted. They don't always think rationally about freshness and tend to be more concerned that something's not stale rather than whether it really is fresh," he claims. "I don't think consumers know what 'fresh' means."

Take bread. Many of us assume a pre-packaged, ready-sliced loaf would be less fresh than an un-packaged, un-sliced loaf presented by a supermarket as freshly baked on site. Hovis, however, prides itself on getting its loaves on to supermarket shelves within hours of baking. Last July, meanwhile, complaints against a Tesco television advert promoting its "fresh bread, baked from scratch" were upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority when it was found bread was baked from scratch only in roughly a quarter of its stores.

Misconceptions also surround the length of time food can spend in the supply chain. With larger, national supermarket chains replacing smaller local and regional retailers, products take longer to reach the supermarket shelf, says Nigel Jenny, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium. Which is why food companies have invested heavily in packaging innovation to keep food fresh longer, a concern that's more pressing than ever at a time when health lobbyists are calling for reduced levels of salt and sugar – both act as natural preservatives.

The deli counter, where a variety of produce is typically sold loose, is one of a number of areas within a typical supermarket where confusion about what is fresh and what is not can occur. The freezer cabinet is another. "A lot comes down to people's perceptions about what they buy in different parts of a store," believes Henry Amar, chairman of fine-food importer and distributor RH Amar.

Take olives – a product never consumed fresh because of the bitter taste of the fruit when fresh from the tree before it is processed. Yet despite this, when sold loose at the deli counter or in the chill cabinet in tubs, olives are often perceived as such. All olives are processed for a period of months before either being tinned or jarred – which can preserve them for up to a couple of years – or exported for deli sale, ahead of which they will typically be marinated or mixed with other ingredients to add flavour.

"Olives preserved and sold in different ways are equally tasty, healthy and nutritious – though some are better than others for certain types of uses, such as being used in a salad or eating as an hors d'oeuvre," Amar adds. "It is how they are sold – the deli counter, in particular – that can instil certain products with values that may not be entirely accurate."

Gogerty endorses this. "Ask why canned food lasts so long and many people will tell you it's down to preservatives, when nothing could be further from the truth," he says. "People think fresh is always best but that's because the big retailers place such focus in-store on fresh and chilled products. The reality is, though, that a product jarred, canned or frozen quickly after being harvested can be just as good-quality or taste as a product sold as fresh."

Fresh isn't always the healthiest option, either. This was the conclusion of Which? from a recent survey comparing fresh and frozen cheese-and-tomato pizzas which suggested that frozen varieties were likely to be lower in fat and saturates than fresh – and cheaper, too. And a similar finding came out of a Manchester Food Research Centre study that compared fresh food with frozen. All of which comes as no surprise to Amar, though he wishes more consumers would see the light.

"Ultimately, the consumer's decision about whether to buy fresh or preserved foods should be based on which product best suits that consumer's particular need," he believes. "It should come down to quality and what's most appropriate." In other words: don't assume the answer's always fresh.

When age matters

Current guidance – and it's only guidance, which means it's not legally binding – is that "fresh" should be used only on products sold within "a short time after production or harvesting", according to Defra. There's no clarification of how long "a short time" is, though – in part due to the marked variations between different food types and the fact that modern distribution, storage and packaging methods can significantly delay deterioration.

Bread – fresh from the oven or half-baked?

If you think pre-packed, sliced bread is always less fresh than freshly baked unsliced, think again. While Hovis's sliced loaves appear on shelves within hours of baking, some retailers' "fresh bread baked from scratch" on the premises is anything but, the Advertising Standards Authority recently found in a ruling against Tesco.

Milk – dairy-fresh or held in suspended animation?

Pasteurisation extends milk's shelf-life. A process in which microfilters are used pre-pasteurisation further slows deterioration, however. That's how Cravendale milk, for example, can be kept "fresh" in the fridge up to 21 days unopened. Even normal fresh milk can be many days old.

Meat – fresh from the abattoir or hanging around for weeks?

Fresh, unprocessed pork typically takes around six days to travel from abattoir to supermarket shelf. The journey takes longer for other meats, however – notably beef. For premium beef cuts, the meat is hung to mature and enhance flavour for anything up to 21 days. Packaging designed to restrict the meat's exposure to oxygen maintains its redness to keep it looking fresh.

Fish – sea-fresh or months-old?

Fish may look fresh, but that doesn't mean it is, as it's often frozen then sold thawed on the fish counter. While correctly labelled fresh fish can reach supermarket shelves in just a few hours, once frozen it can last many weeks. If fish is labelled fresh this should mean it hasn't been frozen – though mislabelling does happen, a recent Channel 4 Dispatches revealed.

Fruit and veg – just picked to last year's harvest?

Due to the speed at which it decays, domestically grown fresh soft fruit can be in-store within a matter of hours with freshness maintained by cool storage. Hard fruits and root vegetables – are carefully stored to ensure all-year-round availability, however. This means they can be in the supply chain for many months. New potatoes bought today will have been harvested just a few days ago, but baking potatoes could have been harvested last autumn.

Olives – never fresh: even at the deli counter

Fresh olives straight from the tree are inedible. Any olive sold – whether at the deli counter, in a can or jar – will have been treated over a period of months involving processes such as fermentation or curing. Deli olives, often flavoured through soaking in marinades, will have been harvested the previous year. Canning and jarring can extend an olive's shelf-life by up to two years.

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