Are artisanal foods better? To label a food artisan or artisanal, makes it sound handcrafted and traditional invoking the idea of homemade. And because there is no labeling standard for artisanal in the US, marketers are free to use the term liberally.
When it comes to commercially produced, packaged, and distributed foods, the term is often meaningless. It is possible that a particular product is produced in smaller batches or grown from heirloom seeds, but it is unlikely that it is truly grown or made by hand in the way it would have been before 1950.
A recent, quick search on a grocery website showed hundreds of foods tagged with the keyword artisan whether or not that word appeared on the label. Within these foods, I found everything from lettuce to plantain chips to mass-produced tortilla chips. Some of the foods were clearly not artisanal. Free-for-all labeling makes it difficult to determine which foods are artisanal and which are not.
If you’re concerned about what you’re ingesting, labeling standards in the US often leave much to be desired. So here’s my take. Artisanal food produced by large food conglomerates and distributed through large chain stores can only be expected to meet the quality standard you have for processed food.
These products may taste good and have a relatively pleasing texture, but that may be because of additives. It is not necessarily a reflection of higher quality ingredients, smaller batches, or more human attention. I would not consider these foods better than any other processed food. That doesn’t mean I automatically avoid foods labeled artisanal. It just means I don’t put a lot of stock in the idea that they are any better quality than any other packaged food.
When it comes to fresh foods, I might choose to purchase an interesting artisanal lettuce, but I would not believe that it equals the freshness and food value of the lettuce I grow in my back yard. And I would not pay extra for it just because of the label.
With all of that said, is it possible that you will find artisanal cheese at your famers market that is better than commercially produced cheese…yes! Is it possible that your local bakery hand kneads bread…yes! Is it possible that a local restaurant makes the creamiest yogurt you’ve ever tasted in small batches on top of their freezer…yes! Are these artisanal foods better? Yes! They’re fresher, more likely to have less additives, and they have been tended by someone who can adjust ingredients and techniques as needed to produce a superior product.
When I reflect, I realize that I prepare food much like an artisan. I prefer to do many things by hand or with a minimum of automated tools. It’s not that I like extra work. I just don’t want lots of gadgets cluttering my workspace. And I feel like I would spend more time cleaning automated tools than I do making something by hand.
I also like working with my hands in the kitchen much like I enjoy putting my hands in the dirt in the garden. There’s something satisfying and fulfilling about the sensory experience of hand preparation. The sound of a carrot yielding to a knife is much more pleasing than the sound of a food processor. I love overpowering a butternut squash or watermelon. And when I squeeze an orange with my hands, the yummy smell of the juice permeates my skin.
Is my food artisanal? I don’t really think of it that way. And yet when I get it right, I appreciate the same things about my dishes that I appreciate about any other artisan’s. And I value taking a bite that for a moment is the best thing I’ve ever tasted! Isn’t that what we all hope to savor – those bites that are the best?
In spite of the difficulty in identifying foods that fit the definition, truly artisanal foods probably are better.