No question, artisan foods are popular. From the increase in small, niche names in specialty shops to big, iconic brands on supermarket shelves and the surge of food prep-at-home delivery businesses, artisan food companies seem to be thriving. All of which begs the question: What is artisanal?
Hand-crafted breads, pastries, chocolate, cheese and other foods are frequently defined as artisanal -- having authentic, natural qualities that mix fine, fresh ingredients with passion on the part of the artisan, who puts his heart and soul into what he makes.
Changing consumer tastes and preferences for natural, healthy foods have contributed to the rapid surge in artistically made products. These foods usually have cleaner labels, which plays to the current obsession people have with food.
Based on the Italian word artigiano, artisan originally referred to a skilled craftsman who carved or otherwise hand-tooled an item.
"Natural" in the food world typically means food with few if any preservatives and artificial ingredients and minimal processing. But the term "natural" still is not defined in the U.S. by the FDA or the USDA. So don't look for the two agencies to weigh in on "artisanal" any time soon.
However, no one can ignore the increasing numbers of consumers searching for more food transparency. According to a survey from Packaged Facts called "Nutritional Labeling and Clean Labels in the U.S.: Future of Food Retailing," 87 percent of Americans "at least sometimes" check the Nutrition Facts panels on packaged foods and beverages, while 56 percent actively look for nutritional information and guidelines.
Does artisanal also mean natural? Food makers, distributors, ingredient suppliers and marketers have come up with their own definitions, and there are plenty of disparities among them.
Time, care and quality
For bakers like La Panzanella, artisan generally means staying true to the ingredients going into the product. "For us, it's food made in, or close to, the traditional way with simple, understandable ingredients, from a family recipe or a recipe that has been handed down -- food that people will remember and want to share with family or friends," says Steve Lorenz, director of marketing. Located near Seattle, La Panzanella bakes classic, savory Italian crackers and sweet, seasonal artisan cookies using fresh, "clean," local ingredients and natural flavors.
"All of our products are both artisanal and natural," he says. "We do use some automation, but stay as true as possible to the original way our crackers were made. We still bake crackers mostly to-order, maintain fairly simple ingredient statements and our products are still touched by human hands as part of the process."
Mark Eisenacher, senior director of marketing at Back to Nature, Naples, Fla., thinks about his company's products as an artist would think about a painting. "In that way, the products are artisan, despite being mass-produced," he says. Back to Nature's wholesome granolas, cereals, cookies and soups incorporate simple ingredients as well as the functional benefits of protein and fiber.
Eisenacher says artisanal doesn’t have to stand for handmade or natural. "What it does stand for is the intent to develop and deliver a uniquely differentiated product that's desirable to certain consumers."
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Waukegan, Ill., a 108-year-old, third-generation family-owned producer of vanillas, flavors and aromas, uses the same recipes and production methods it has used since its inception. Although it possesses high-tech manufacturing facilities in Illinois and Leeuwarden, Netherlands, "We believe in a fairly traditional definition of artisan, that it applies to high-quality products made often in small batches, using traditional methods," says CEO Craig Nielsen.
"For our customers − many of whom are foodservice professionals looking for the best possible ingredients − the most important words are quality and tradition." One of Nielsen-Massey's most popular offerings is Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla bean paste, favored by many artisanal ice cream and candy makers, bakers and pastry chefs for its rich, creamy flavor and thick consistency.
To Naomi Novotny, president of SaltWorks Inc., a gourmet wholesale and retail supplier of more than 110 varieties of specialty sea salt from around the world, artisan means a product that's hand-crafted with attention, patience, expertise and care. "All of our salts are hand-tended and cold-smoked, with untreated, carefully selected woods, and no artificial flavors or colors," Novotny explains.
Located near Seattle, SaltWorks does use high-tech quality control and packaging procedures, such as optical color sorting, high-speed container filling and low-temperature drying, but its harvesting, smoking and flavoring processes involve great human care, which allow its offerings to be considered artisanal, Novotny says. "This is extremely important to us, and we partner with hand-selected companies that adhere to strict guidelines. We have perfected many proprietary artisanal practices to offer the highest quality and widest selection of all-natural salts anywhere."
Many foods bearing the artisan claim are hand-crafted; however, not all that are labeled artisan deserve the credit. Some food and beverage marketers and makers weave the word into promotions and use it with perhaps a broader connotation than its strict definition. Indeed, everything from beer, ice cream and pastries to pickles, pancakes and pizza has been described as artisan to promote quality and distinction.