Clearing up confusion about artisan food

In an environment where the term “artisan” has become the latest buzzword, how does a consumer distinguish between a marketing label and the real deal?

Consumers are seeing a new adjective used to describe food products. “Artisan” has entered the lexicon of food, joining words such as “natural” and “gourmet.” The term has traditionally been used to describe meats, cheeses, breads, vinegars and beverages. But what exactly does the word mean when used to describe food?

Unfortunately, no official definition or standard for artisan foods exists. As a consequence the word has come to be used as a marketing label. In 2011, DataMonitor reported that more than 800 new food products labeled artisan had entered the market in the previous five years. Today, the artisan label is even being used by fast food chains, pizza joints and manufacturers of frozen convenience foods in an attempt to distinguish their products from more typical offerings.

Traditionally, artisan refers to both how something is made and what it is made of. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an artisan as, “one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods.” The artisan process requires a specific knowledge, caring or philosophy and is most often carried out by hand. Furthermore, artisan foods have been associated with fresh, non- or minimally processed and often, locally sourced ingredients.

For many, the image conjured up of artisan foods are those that are handcrafted by a skilled creator from pure, local ingredients. Artisan bread comes to mind. One might expect the loaf to be a bit irregular and a bit different looking from the one that shared a spot in the wood-fired stone oven. Its taste and texture would be superior to manufactured bread. These are unlikely conditions under which fast or frozen foods are sourced and manufactured.

How can a consumer distinguish between a marketing gimmick and real artisan food? The Hartman Group suggests asking three questions of the product: Does a real person craft this product with care? Is it made by hand, in small batches or limited quantities using specialty ingredients? Does it reflect expertise, tradition, passion, a process? Ultimately, the only way to learn the answers to these questions is to have a relationship with the person who crafted the products you seek to buy. This is impossible to do with supermarket, fast or frozen food products.

There are, however, ways that relationships between artisan producers and their customers can be developed. Michigan State University Extension promotes farmers’ markets as convenient places for buyers to meet and talk with the people who produce their food. Specialty markets, especially those who purchase from local producers, may be able to foster relationships with customers at special events and tastings. Asking questions such as, “Who made this cheese?” and “From where do you source your milk?” can help consumers determine if a product is truly artisan. If a consumer cannot make some kind of connection with the person who crafted an artisan food product, the odds increase that the product isn’t artisan and that it’s been given that label for marketing purposes.

MSU Extension has community food systems educators who provide technical assistance and information about community food systems. Use MSU Extension’s Find an Expert search function using the keywords, “Community Food.”

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