The Word to Watch Out for on Fast Food Menus? Fresh

Just a few years ago, seeing the word "fresh" on a restaurant menu was a clue about the quality of ingredients. But now? Thanks to the fast-food industry, the word is mostly just a marketing term, and "fresh" doesn't mean much any more.

Related: The 5 Worst 'Healthy' Fast-Food Meals for Kids

"I think it's meaningless, almost, now," Mark Crumpacker, the chief marketing officer of Chipotle, told Slate. "I don't think there are any rules around 'fresh.' You can just say it with impunity. And I think lots of people do."

Consumers tend to assume that "fresh" also means "unprocessed" and "healthy," and restaurants are happy to play to that perception. McDonald's, for example, markets its salads as "Yummy, fresh, freedom in a bowl," but add a little protein and dressing and suddenly one crispy chicken salad has as many calories and nearly as much fat as a double cheeseburger. National chains tout their freshly made pizzas without focusing on how the ingredients are shipped to every outlet in a freezer truck. And while Chipotle's super-fresh food may be chock full of integrity, its burritos aren't very different, nutritionally, than Taco Bell's.

PHOTOS: Over the Top Fast Food Creations

"Fresh is a magic word in restaurant marketing today," says Aaron Allen of Global Restaurant Consulting. "It conjures the most positive associations for consumers. Americans are not yet ready to eat 'healthy,' but they will eat foods that are perceived as 'healthful.' Foods that are fresh are implied to be more healthful."

But the appropriation of the word "fresh" isn't new -- it's a trend that restaurant insiders identified years ago.

"Americans adore all things fresh: fresh beginnings, fresh outlooks and now, more than ever, fresh foods," Sara Wilson wrote at Entrepreneur in 2006. "Better-educated consumers are searching for fresh, unprocessed, healthy foods - and this dietary change is fueling what we predict will be the next big trend in franchising: fresh-food franchises."

The prediction was on target. A National Restaurant Association survey of 1,800 chefs found that on-site gardens, locally grown produce, and locally sourced meats and seafoods are three of the top 10 menu trends for 2013 and, for many diners, "local" is another way to say "fresh."

"Fresh" also crops up in descriptions of how food is prepared, where it's sourced, how long it's been sitting on a counter. It's become a kind of code for "superior," and that can refer to the menu item, the company that's selling it, or even the person who is buying it.

"In most ways, fresh has nothing to do with food at all," writes S.T. VanAirsdale at Slate. "It's become a convolution, tied up with manufactured images of authenticity, transparency, and even morality-the fleeting ecstasy of doing what consumers are persuaded to believe is the good, right thing."

Also on Shine:

Fast Food Employees Dish on the Things You Never Should Order
Are Canned Foods Better Than Fresh?
Study links fast food to asthma, eczema in kids