Fresh from the land! Freshly baked! The 'fresh' advertising cries fly around your ears as a consumer during a tour of the supermarket. It usually sounds good, but due to the lack of laws and regulations, the term 'fresh' actually means nothing.

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So many different foods claim to be 'fresh' that you can hardly imagine that that term always means the same thing. For consumers, the freshness of a product is a quality indication. It seems tastier, longer lasting or even healthier. Their purchasing behavior is determined by the taste, the price of a product and whether it is healthy. But above all through quality or freshness.

How important people thought 'freshness' and what properties they thought was then investigated by a Swiss nutrition research institute. Among other things, it emerged that people who assess the freshness of an apple pay particular attention to taste, crispness and juiciness.

Earlier research into bread proved the odor, crispness of the crust and the cohesion of the crumb to be decisive. Consumers therefore have different expectations for different products. But there is a world of difference between the expectations of the consumer and the products on the shelf.

Fresh means 'hardly processed'

The food industry usually uses the term 'fresh' for untreated products. This means that they have hardly been processed with preservation methods or agents. An exception is made for products that have been (long-term) cooled or frozen. Cooling and freezing processes hardly change anything about the nutritional values, while they are necessary to get those products in good condition on our plate. Think of fish, mangoes from South America or kiwis from New Zealand. And the vegetables in the freezer section of the supermarket.

It may also be necessary to process it for the safety of a product. For example, fresh milk is not raw, but pasteurized to kill bacteria.

Many terms on packaging are subject to strict laws and regulations. For example, it is mandatory to list allergens and manufacturers must substantiate health claims. Yet there are hardly any rules for the use of the word "fresh." The Dutch Commodities Act does not set any additional requirements and there are few regulations for this term within the EU either.

Frozen fish can be sold as 'fresh'. (photo: Getty)

Guidelines for fresh

There are a few positive exceptions: Denmark and England have already published guidelines for the use of the term 'fresh' and at European level some specifications have been laid down for fresh fish products, eggs and meat. But this means that retailers and companies can always promote other products as 'fresh'.

As long as the label states that a fish has been frozen, a store may sell the same fish as 'fresh'. 'Freshly squeezed juice' can be made from fruit that was first frozen, then pressed and packaged. Incidentally, that does not mean that fruit and vegetables from the freezer or from a jar or can would be less healthy. They contain approximately as many nutrients as the fresh varieties.

Consumer seems barely protected

But because there is little regulation around the terminology, other expectations can be raised by promoting something 'fresh' than can actually be achieved. Consumers hardly seem protected against this.

A report from the European Consumer Association BEUC from 2018 describes how different terms on packaging seem to give the impression that a product is of better quality: 'traditional', 'artisanal', but also 'fresh' are judged by many consumers. Despite these striking findings, further legislation has not been forthcoming.

For the time being, consumers must rely on common sense and on further instructions on, for example, the back of a label. If a product has a best-before date in the future, the question is whether you can still call it 'fresh'.