At the Herbert Park food market on a recent Sunday, Conor Cagney was selling frozen cuts of organic, dry-cured Dexter beef from his stall.
Written across the centre of his t-shirt was “Real Meats”. Behind him, the name of his business was advertised on a tarpaulin sheet: the Real Meat Co-Operative.
Beef farmer Cagney uses the word “real” to distinguish his cuts from others, he says, standing behind one of the freezers at the stall.
“I use it to differentiate between your standard supermarket mass-produced anonymous food with stuff that’s coming from farmers that you can meet and say hello to when you get a full story behind all the animals,” he says.
That said, there’s nothing to stop bigger producers and retailers from using “real”, says Cagney. “Fundamentally, all the meat you eat is real meat.”
“In that sense, they can use the word, it’s a free word – it doesn’t have any regulation around it,” he says.
Those who closely read menus, food labels and food advertising may have noticed an abundance of references to “real” food in recent times, yet they may not all think it means the same thing.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) regulates how businesses can use some marketing terms, to try to make sure consumers are clear on what they mean and not misled by labelling.
For example, in 2015, it published guidelines for what food must be, to be called “artisan”, “farmhouse”, “traditional”, or “natural”.
But it’s not possible to set out guidelines for every word that appears on food labels, says Clodagh Crehan, senior technical executive for regulatory affairs at the FSAI.
“Everyone comes up with the nice buzzwords and the nice terms,” says Crehan.
When it comes to terms like “real”, which are not specifically regulated, regulating authorities like the FSAI have to look at individual cases of labelling and set them against existing legislation, she says.
The FSAI looks to European Union regulations to guide how it goes about regulating food labels. Article 7 of a 2011 regulation says food labelling should be accurate, clear and easy to understand, and not misleading.
Says Crehan: “When we come with something like ‘real’, or other kind of single words, very nondescript, we would have to bring it back then to Article 7 and 6 to see, is this misleading?”
“I have to try and put myself in the consumer’s shoes, that if they see this on a label, what does it mean to them, without any further explanation?” Crehan says.
In short: “Is the explanation sufficient enough to justify using the terms?” she adds.
Grace Binchy, an insights and trends specialist at Bord Bia, says that “real” can be interpreted in different ways by consumers.
“I could give you many different interpretations,” says Binchy. “Is it local? Is it straight from the farm? … [has] it got clean ingredients?”
How It’s Used
Junior’s, a deli and café based in Beggars Bush, was set up by two brothers when they “decided to realise their passions for real food”, says their website.
Greystones mecca the Happy Pear mentions on its website that staff want to provide people with “real food”.
Xi’an Street Food, a Chinese restaurant with two outlets in the city, says on its website that they “believe in real food”.
Bigger chains use similar language. Birds Eye vaunts its “real food simply made”. Four Star Pizza in Kilmainham advertises its “real ingredients” in a big sign on its outside wall.
What customers understand that to mean differs. Real food relates to how the food is sourced and produced, says Richard Keane, who is leaving Junior’s with his order on a recent Tuesday.
“[It’s] not processed. Straight from the natural farm supplier, farmer’s market type thing, as opposed to bulk-bought,” he says.
For Charlie Singh, waiting outside Xi’an Street Food on North Earl Street on a recent Monday, calling something “real food” is about its authenticity, he says.
“I can’t define the real food,” he says, “but yeah, I can see whenever I order from Xi’an, it tastes always like Chinese food.”
And on Anne Street South, at Xi’an’s other Dublin restaurant, says Christina Zhang: “I think it just means authentic.”
If it means different things to different people, does that mean it’s meaningless, and what does that mean for whether it should be defined or not for consumers?
Cagney isn’t convinced it’s possible to legislate for “real” as a food-labelling term, he says. “It’s real, it exists.”
“Maybe there’s people that are better at drafting these things that would be able to get the sense that one would want out of it in legislation or regulation,” he says, “and then in that case, I would have a good look at it.”
“But I can’t see that happening, so I’d be against attempting it,” he says.
David Flynn, one of the founders of the Happy Pear, says that while it says “real food” on the Happy Pear website – and by that they mean whole foods and unprocessed – they avoid using “real” on their packaging. That’s because it’s so subjective, he says.
And terms like “real” can be abused, Flynn says, just as terms like “natural” can be. “‘Natural’ means nothing in a food product now, because … so many people are using it,” he says.
One way to add clarity is for producers to be more explicit about what makes their food “real” or “natural” – and for consumers to look out for that.
Terms like “real” can become marketing buzzwords, says Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It.
So good producers “who really do make real food, or natural food, or whatever you want to call it, have to go to greater lengths to differentiate themselves,” he says, over video call.
Like, by telling the story of the project, he says. “They have to literally explain, you know, what makes their product natural, versus the other products that say ‘natural’.”
Binchy, the trends specialist at Bord Bia, has seen producers promoting the story of their products, she says. “There’s a bigger trend around local and supporting local.”
“And the power of provenance, I suppose, is another big thing that we will see a little bit more of,” she says.
Conor Cagney, at the Real Meat Co-Operative, emphasizes his product’s history which backs up his use of the term “real”, he says.
From farm to market stall, Cagney and others at the co-operative are in control of the production chain, he says, and customers can meet farmers, and get the full story behind their animals.
“It does have this whole provenance behind it, which the supermarkets attempt, but don’t really get,” he says.