Long Reads

The ABCs of Good Food: B Is for Branding

We're here to explain how food marketing language works, and which labels can and can't be trusted.

February  3, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

What makes your good food “good”? The ABCs of Good Food will attempt to answer that (and ask more questions along the way). We’re hoping to clarify jargon, highlight underrepresented issues, and help you feel a little less paralyzed in the egg aisle.

“I was recently at the grocery store and saw hydroponic greens labeled as ‘organic’,” Kristin Kimball, co-owner of Essex Farm, explained to me, exasperated. “The term ‘organic’ refers to produce grown in unadulterated soil. How can hydroponic greens—greens literally grown without soil—be called organic?”

This conversation really stuck with me—especially as I stared at all of Whole Foods’s permutations of “baby salad greens” days later. I know I want to eat and support “good” food—but does that mean putting my dollars towards “organic” or “natural” options? “Cage-free” or “free-range” meat? The carton boasting “certified humane” eggs, or the carton featuring a bird of the month?

What is Branding?

As it turns out, branding has less to do with what’s scientifically factual about the products we buy, and more to do with how we, as buyers, are made to feel about them. Branding is defined as the “promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design.” Note that it need not be by means of truthful advertising and inherent design.

In the case of food, for example, snacks high in sugar and fats—whether or not they’re “good fats” or “natural sugars”—are instead billed as “wholesome” or “simple,” and often feature warm, natural color palettes or images of whole fruits and vegetables. Overlaid with morality, these labels can become dangerous, propagandistic, and eventually—oddly enough—meaningless in their mis- and over-use.

The irony, though, is that brands’ “faking till they make it” actually, well, kind of works. Language, colors, and imagery that suggest a “wholesomeness” that might not actually be there, both succeed in deceiving buyers, and puts pressure on brands to actually fulfill these bold claims (and make their product better, cheaper, and tastier than their competitors).

Economist Don Boudreaux, building on Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, explains this with milk:

"If, say, dairies all sold milk in homogeneous containers, then Jones the dairy farmer would have less incentive to incur costs to improve or to maintain the quality of his milk: because his milk is indistinguishable, in consumers’ eyes, from other-producers’ milk, Jones personally pockets all the money he saves by not spending it on quality enhancement and assurance… But now comes farmer Smith who markets his milk in branded packages with a unique design, logo, color scheme, and slogan (‘Smith’s – The Yummiest Milk!’)... Consumers, tasting Smith’s poor-quality milk and being able to identify it as coming from Smith’s farm, would reduce their demands for Smith’s milk and increase their demands for milk other than Smith’s. Therefore, Smith has much less incentive than does Jones to supply poor-quality milk. Smith’s branding keeps Smith honest.”

If we are to be thoughtful, conscious consumers, we should be actively questioning what we’re paying for. Are your dollars directly supporting the just compensation of workers? Organic, soil-minded farmers? Packaging that’s compostable, or just really sleek looking? Unfortunately, there is not one label we can all support blindly (remember the “organic” hydroponic greens)—it really depends on the specific product and what matters to you most as a consumer.

Three Misconceptions of Food Branding

  • All food marketing language is scientifically based.

Most language is, in fact, designed with customer’s emotions, healthful aspirations, or social stigma in mind. Brands believe that rattling off facts, like vitamin or nutrient content, can come across as preachy and alienating instead of informative.

Take this example: While researching the history of the “natural” cereal industry, environmental historian Michael Kideckel was mystified to find that the definition of “natural” has flip-flopped multiple times throughout the 20th century. At the turn of the century, factories processing food were seen as “natural” mechanizations of “the mortar-and-pestle food preparation of American Indians.” They also kept food out of immigrant workers’ hands, and so, kept food “pure” and “natural.” Later in the century, the meaning shifted drastically: With the promotion of organic food by the environmentalist counterculture in the 1960s, “natural” meant anything and everything unprocessed, and straight from the earth.

  • All food marketing language adheres to a certain universal code of ethics/values.

Again, the language is subjective and while some labels are guided by rigorous (and expensive) certification processes, most are not regulated at all. Let’s look at two of the most common—and most commonly confused—labels out there: “organic” and “free-range.”

USDA “Organic” is one of the few labels requiring farmers to adhere to [specific practices for ultimate soil, animal, and ecosystem healthcertification process, and pass annual inspections by a USDA inspector. “Certified Naturally Grown” is used by farms practicing organic, but unable to afford the government certification. Similar labels include: “Fair Trade,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” and “Vegan.”

USDA “free-range,” though referring to birds that have been allowed outside access, the quality and duration of outside time is not specified, and thus not regulated; chickens given outside access for two hours or two seconds can both can be called “free-range.” “Grass-fed” also stopped being regulated by the USDA in 2016. “Hormone-free” and “Raised Without Antibiotics” do not have specific requirements either.

  • Artisanal/handmade is always superior to processed foods.

The slow-food movement warns us against eating anything our great-grandmothers wouldn't, but that kind of blanket avoidance can be unrealistic. While modern brands tout from-scratch non-mechanized foods as a big plus, it's not necessarily always the better way, nor a viable option for those with already limited access to food.

Culinary historian Rachel Laudan writes, “If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove instead of going to McDonald’s, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old. We are reducing the options of others as we attempt to impose our elite culinary preferences on the rest of the population.”

Food for thought

For more reading about food branding, check out the resources below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kristin Miller
    Kristin Miller
  • Smaug
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.


Kristin M. February 4, 2020
This article should really be called "what is food labeling" not "branding." Labels and claims are not a brand. They can contribute to reasons to believe in the brand promise, but are not a brand.

And while I agree overall with the areas of misconception regarding food labeling, citing 120- and 60-year-old examples to talk about science and claims on packaging -- I'm sorry, how is that helpful to a consumer trying to navigate these claims in grocery stores today?
Smaug February 3, 2020
It probably goes without saying, but virtually all aspects of commerce are ruled by propaganda of one sort or another- the food industry is by no means unique. Nor is it limited to large corporations- the 13 billion professional chefs and 2.7 million "celebrity" chefs currently operating in the US depend largely on hype, fads and buzzwords in quest of a marketing share.
I really see no reason why hydroponic produce can't be organic, though it would be a stretch to label it as "natural" (unless maybe we're eating Sarracenias and Darlingtonias).