As restaurants scramble to satisfy health-conscious consumers, separating fact and fiction when using popular semantics—like fresh vs. frozen and prepared vs. made-from-scratch—has become an important, often confusing, topic of debate.
For many chefs and restaurant operators, the ingredients, preparation, and cooking methods they use are integral both to their cuisine and to the overall perception of the food they create.
Terms like fresh, antibiotic-free, made-from-scratch, and organic increasingly appear on menus of full-service restaurants, from white tablecloth settings to family-style diners. These labels denote a certain aesthetic for many consumers: a higher quality, healthier restaurant. For restaurants, the use of these elevated ingredients and techniques underscores the credibility and value of their menu.
“It’s a commitment that we have for all of our products, because at the end of the day, these just taste better,” says Tony Smith, president of Paul Martin’s American Grill, a nine-unit upscale-dining chain based in Newport Beach, California.
At the same time, there’s significant debate and confusion about the attributes of these ingredients. There are even gray areas about some of the definitions.
“Restaurants want to provide consumers with accurate information, but the problem is what something means to one individual is not the same with someone else,” says Beth Johnson, principal of Food Directions, a food-policy firm based in Washington, D.C. “You try to do the best you can with the limited amount of space you have on a menu. It’s balancing what you want to say and telling consumers what they need to know.”
This is important as more Americans are trying to eat healthy, explains Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst with market research firm NPD Group. “Our eating habits are evolving, and more of us know what’s good and not good for us.”
NPD found Millennials have reduced their restaurant visits largely for budgetary reasons, although “a good percentage said they [did so because they] were trying to eat healthier,” she says.
However, virtually none of the Millennials—fewer than 1 percent of those studied by NPD—were satisfied with the choices associated with healthy eating.
More consumers are also looking for menu items with ingredients that are “free” of potentially negative things, such as chemicals and allergens, adds William Roberts, senior analyst, food and drink, at market researcher Mintel.
“It ties into the desire for foods that are more real and fresh,” he says. It’s also linked to food safety concerns. “Consumers have seen recall after recall, so fewer ingredients, particularly artificial ones, are seen as fewer elements to break down in the food chain.”
Restaurant operators who seek to provide fresh food need to consider a wide range of issues, including consistency, the year-round availability of ingredients, and, of course, profitability.
“You need to have a nice balance,” says Walter Staib, award-winning chef, author, and proprietor of Philadelphia’s City Tavern. “You have to consider the prime cost,” he cautions, and that includes all the outlays to do business, from labor and ingredients to utilities and pricing.
Technicalities and Terminology
When it comes to defining food terms, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) handle the lion’s share of the regulatory oversight. The latter ’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) administers programs to oversee the efficient, fair marketing of agricutural products.
The USDA generally regulates meat, poultry, and eggs, while the FDA oversees most of the rest, including seafood. Food labeling is regulated by the FDA, and the rules, including health and nutrition claims, apply to virtually all foods, including those sold in restaurants, notes FDA spokesman Noah Bartolucci.
There’s a clear line between food that is fresh or frozen, although the term fresh may be a bit of a moving target.
The FDA doesn’t define frozen, but instead relies on the characterization of a product in a frozen state. Fresh refers to unprocessed food, meaning it is raw and has not been frozen or put through any processing or preservation, according to FDA regulations.
There are exceptions for using the term fresh, however, such as approved waxes or coatings used with fruit. Also pasteurized milk can be described as fresh, because consumers understand that pasteurization is a process nearly always used with milk.
According to the AMS, perishable fruit and vegetables still can be described as fresh if they haven’t been manufactured into food “of a different kind of character.” They can be blanched by water, steam, or oil; they can be battered, coated, chopped, or cured; and they may have had color added, had their seeds or outer coverings removed, and had sugar or other sweetening agents added.
In general, seafood maintained between 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit and 37.9 degrees is fresh, even if kept on ice on a fishing boat. But poultry is fresh if the birds or cuts have never been below 26 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the temperature poultry freezes, the AMS says.
“Fresh can be a very loose term,” says Bruce Mattel, chef and associate dean of food production at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “It is used so often and in so many cases to imply the food is not frozen or preserved in any way.”
For consumers, the term can be a “subconscious trigger for quality,” he notes.
When it comes to fresh vs. frozen in terms of quality, it’s a mixed bag. The FDA notes ice crystals can damage some food cells, and chefs say there can be textural changes in food that has been frozen.
“Seafood has a lot of water content, and cells that contain water expand during many types of freezing,” Chef Mattel explains. “So when it thaws, the cells release that water and some water is lost.” Cryogenic freezing seafood at sea, he explains, “is so quick you don’t have that expansion,” although the seafood still needs to be defrosted correctly.
Nutritionally, there are few distinctions between fresh and frozen.
“There’s not a lot of macro-nutritional difference in carbohydrates, protein, and fiber between fresh and frozen” says Amy Wright, research dietitian at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the case with produce as well as meats.
“What can be different is the form,” she continues. “Like frozen strawberries. The form is different from a fresh strawberry, which is more appetizing and appealing.” As for the taste, “that’s really an individual choice.”
Sometimes frozen is actually a better choice, Chef Mattel says. For instance, fresh scallops at a grocer are often soaked in a sodium mixture, while frozen ones are not. And wild salmon, whether fresh or frozen, may be a more sustainable product than fresh, farm-raised ones.
While Chef Staib uses mostly fresh ingredients at City Tavern, he incorporates a few frozen ones if they are superior quality or safer. For instance, he has frozen collard greens in his West Indies Pepperpot soup because he found them to be more consistent.
Dave Foegley, director of culinary operations at Indianapolis restaurants St. Elmo Steak House and Harry & Izzy’s, says he tries to balance various factors, including consistency, availability, and labor costs, in deciding what kind of ingredients to use.
A few ingredients are frozen, including au jus sauce, for consistency, but in most cases he uses fresh items, even if great frozen ones are available. “We do a creamed corn at St. Elmo from local corn off the cob. Once the season ends, it’s no longer on the menu,” he says.
It’s important, all the chefs agree, to never mislabel frozen products as fresh.
There’s no precise regulatory definition for made from scratch, and the term is hard to pin down, with a meaning that varies depending on the chef or operator.
“In my experience, scratch cooking is producing something from other food ingredients,” says Thomas J. Delle Donne, chef and assistant dean of culinary relations and special products at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole food,” he notes. “Made from scratch means there is some real, human interaction. In general terms, it could mean a pie is baked here, but not all of the ingredients are made here.”
He uses spaghetti and meatballs as an example. “If you are buying a tomato sauce but still adding herbs and spices to it, making the meatballs, making the pasta from flour, you’re still making it from scratch,” he says.
There’s always a question of how far back in the process is necessary to call a menu item made from scratch. While the spaghetti may be produced on site from flour, “I assume you’re not milling the flour,” he points out.
Mattel agrees there’s some flexibility in the term. “Think about your salad mixes or buying cleaned spinach in a bag. If you are making a spinach quiche using that spinach along with Gruyere cheese and fresh eggs, I would say that is scratch.”
Foegley points out that a fall favorite at St. Elmo—prime rib chili—uses a base he created 14 years ago and now has custom-manufactured for the restaurant in order to be consistent. The staff prepares the overall dish, however, using freshly prepared prime rib, cheese, and onions.
All the terms being used to classify and define meat—including no hormones, no antibiotics, natural, and never-ever—can be a bit confusing, misleading, and sometimes just plain incorrect.
For instance, hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry, so the descriptor hormone-free shouldn’t be used with those animals, explains AMS spokesman Samuel Jones-Ellard. Hormones are permitted in beef—to help promote faster growth or increased milk production—so labeling beef as hormone-free could make sense, but it must be documented with the USDA.
The phrase no antibiotics may be used for red meat and poultry if sufficient documentation confirms the animals were raised without antibiotics. Natural meat and poultry means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and has been minimally processed.
Never-ever 3 is the most descriptive and precise terminology for meat, meaning the animal never received any antibiotics, growth promotants, or animal byproducts in the feed.
It’s easy for consumers to be confused by all of this, says Smith of Paul Martin’s American Grill, especially because a term like natural seems as if it should refer to cattle that are produced hormone-free and antibiotic-free. But that’s not always the case.
“We have a beef program that uses a group of small family-owned farmers dedicated to producing the highest-quality beef ever,” he says. The cattle are never given antibiotics or hormones, and the herds are raised on pastures and able to roam.
The cattle are typically raised on the mother’s milk for six months. “That gives them all the nutrients they need,” he explains. They are then pasture-fed for at least another six months before being finished for four to six months on a corn diet.
These days, in New York City's chain restaurant community, sodium is proving it can cause more than just a pinch of controversy.
The city's Department of Health passed a mandate, effective December 1, that required brands with at least 15 locations to post warning icons next to menu items or combination meals that contain 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more—about the same amount found in a teaspoon or 6 grams of salt.
The National Restaurant Association soon announced it was taking the city to court, filing a lawsuit that argues the regulation, which forces restaurants to print a black triangle with a salt shaker inside it next to items, will "place an overly onerous and hefty burden" on the Big Apple's restaurateurs. The rule won't penalize restaurants for serving more than the recommended daily amount, although it will issue fines if operators fail to comply with the labeling. The city unanimously passed the mandate in September insisting that many New Yorkers consume too much salt, which can lead to hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
Any cow becoming ill is given antibiotics and returned to health, but then is not used for beef at Paul Martin’s.
Grass-fed beef comes from cattle that have been fed grass and forage their entire lives, except for milk prior to weaning. In addition to grass, the cattle’s diet includes hay, legumes, cereal grain crops in the pre-grain state, and silage. Routine mineral and vitamin supplements may be included.
USDA designations—prime, choice, or select—are based on marbling and other factors.
Of all the terms being used at restaurants these days, one of the easiest to figure out is organic. That’s because the word can be used only in terms of a food item if it meets the certification requirements set forward by the USDA.
“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate various practices to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity,” notes AMS spokesman Jones-Ellard.
“There’s certified organic and there’s everything else,” Mattel says. Chef Delle Donne agrees: “If it’s not organic or certified organic by the USDA, I would avoid the term by all means. It could create all kinds of trouble.”
A number of farmers and ranchers may produce food in a way that generally would qualify as organic except they can’t afford—or don’t want to pay for—the organic label, including inspections. If that’s the case, the word sustainable can be as impactful, he says.
At the end of the day, despite all the terms and labels, the best idea for chefs and owners is to take the time to know their farmers and other providers.
“As chefs, we have a responsibility of being sure about our products, and that begins with knowing the farmer,” Delle Donne says. “That’s how I’m sure if there are no chemicals, no steroids, that they’re not jacking up the cattle. It’s an old-world handshake.”