So many of the foods we eat today are processed. If you visit the average grocery store, most of the square footage is devoted to dry boxed foods or frozen food, with less than 20 percent reserved for fresh produce. Why? Because so many processed foods are cheaper, easier to stock and sell, and last longer.

Restaurants have also tuned in to the cost and labor saving graces of processed foods, but not always to their benefit. A recent Yahoo News story showed that even in France, the culinary capital of the globe, more than one third of non-fast-food restaurants have confessed to serving “industrially processed, often frozen food” to unsuspecting patrons. Many restaurants in the U.S. don’t truly cook anymore—they serve up “heat-and-eat” meals that are basically glorified TV dinners.

Relying on pre-made food is cost-effective, but many consumers are starting to push away their overly processed plates. Taste is a major factor, since many processed foods overuse salt, oil, and sugar. For consumers in search of a more wholesome flavor, demanding fresh ingredients is about choosing foods that will contribute to a healthier lifestyle and deliver on taste.

What is processed food?

“Processed food” has become a dirty phrase in our culture, but that’s not always fair. “Processed” just means the food has been altered from its natural state, whether for convenience or safety. Processed can mean canned, frozen, refrigerated, dehydrated, or aseptically processed (in sterile packaging).

Processed” isn’t necessarily unhealthy.

It’s true that many choices on grocery shelves are loaded with unhealthy ingredients such as corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, salt, artificial colors, and chemicals like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or potassium benzoate. Many processed packages deliver junk foods high in fat, sugar, and funky preservatives. These are the types against which many consumers are revolting.

There are plenty of healthy processed foods, however. Milk, bottled green tea, frozen whole peas, and organic canned tomatoes are all “processed.” Healthy processed foods such as frozen strawberries or blueberries contain simple, wholesome ingredients without lots of fillers and additives. So when you buy frozen strawberries, you just get strawberries, not strawberries plus Red 40, guar gum, artificial flavor, and sodium benzoate.

Why have restaurants started to lean on processed foods?

Restaurants have always leaned on processed foods such as canned goods to maintain a steadfast inventory of staple products and save money on ingredients with longer shelf lives. In recent years, however, you could argue that many restaurants have begun to rely on processed food as a crutch, shifting more of the cooking process to off-site commercial kitchens and leaving “chefs” in the actual restaurant to do little more than heat and serve.

Part of the reason this time-saving, cost-saving method works is because it sells. Human taste buds naturally perk up when they encounter junk food’s holy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat. But nutritionists and scientists argue that these foods can become addictive. Taste buds eventually deaden to the sensations of salt, sugar, and fat, so food companies keep increasing the levels to add more flavor. When a person who regularly eats unhealthy foods actually tastes something fresh like a strawberry, it might not taste the same as it would to someone who eats fresh foods more often. It’s almost like the difference between a smoker’s tastes and a non-smoker’s tastes. Consumers crave more and more addictive junk as they start needing more flavor to taste anything. It’s a negative cycle that’s difficult for many to break.

Consumer education is bringing freshness back.

Lots of consumers believe they are making healthy choices at the grocery store, only to realize the box of “diet” bars they picked up are stacked with artificial sugars and other mystery filler ingredients. Over the last few years, a number of books, articles, television shows, and other media have exposed the unhealthy ingredients the food industry is pushing on consumers. Examples include Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Supersize Me, Oprah’s “Food 101” episode, Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, and Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. Suddenly, “health food” wasn't just a hippie trend; it became an issue average Americans viewed as vital to their well-being.

Consumers are telling their friends what fresh has done for them.

As people started making healthier food choices, they started feeling better. They weren’t as sick, they struggled less with weight management, and they were healthier all around. Word of mouth about the benefits of fresher choices started spreading, and more and more people hit the blogosphere to chronicle their journey toward better eating. Healthier food started to sell, and people sought out locally grown and organic ingredients.

Responsive restaurants started using fresher ingredients and educating guests about what they were eating, who prepared it, and where it came from. These restaurants earned an audience of fans who saw them not just as a place to grab a bite, but as health partners and friends who meshed with their ideology and flavor preferences.

A culture of craft

Another contributing factor to the segue from overly processed foods to fresh ingredients is the rising demand for craft, custom, and designer products. Consider beer. (Who wouldn’t want to?!) Mainstream brands dominated for ages, and it has been historically difficult for smaller craft breweries to reach an audience and take a sip of their market share. Thanks to legislative changes in many states and counties, it’s now easier for brewers to design and deliver their own brand. Beer lovers have transformed into connoisseurs who seek the finest, most unique beers with personality from brewery outposts across the country and world. In our culture, craft is becoming king.

People are craving the same craft mentality when it comes to their food. A flip-and-wrap burger shot up with hormones and made mostly by machines just doesn’t have the same appeal as a one-of-a-kind, handmade, never-frozen, grass-fed beef patty cooked just for you moments before your first bite. Consumers are looking to get more out of their food, and fresh ingredients elevate every level of the dining experience. Craft is simply preferable to factory-prepared.

Local and seasonal foods are starting to dominate.

In addition to demanding more information about what’s in their food, people are learning more about where their food actually comes from. So much of what Americans consume comes from other countries and even other continents, but more people are asking for local ingredients instead. People are becoming more inspired to support a local farmer from their own community than they are to buy out-of-season ingredients from big box stores. Supporting restaurants that source ingredients locally helps the community and economy. It also boosts freshness and nutritional quality since items don’t have to travel as long from farm to table.

Fresh food tastes better. Period.

When fresh food is in season and ripe off the vine, there's nothing more delicious. People love to savor the genuine wholesomeness that comes from fresh ingredients. Fresh foods deliver a bright, lively experience that can be just as addictive as salt, sugar, or fat (but in a good way!). What’s even more habit-forming is the feeling you get when you’re eating well, which most people love maintaining by making healthy choices day after day. Fresh foods are healthier, taste better, and are visually more alluring on the plate. Restaurants that make the switch to fresher ingredients will reap the rewards not only in doing the right thing for guests’ health, but in the name of flavor.

Expert Takes, Feature