Which sounds more appealing: an artisan sandwich, or just a plain old sandwich? Marketers are increasingly tossing the word into the name of food products because consumers assume “artisan” means the item is somehow made with love and expertise and individuality. But many “artisan” foods are processed and mass-produced just like their standard-issue non-artisan counterparts.
Citing figures from research service Datamonitor, USA Today reports that over the past five years, food manufacturers have introduced more than 800 products with “artisan” in the name. About 200 “artisan” food products were launched in 2010 alone.
The products include the “Artisan Recipes” chips series from Tostitos, new Artisan Pizzas—Spinach & Fetta, Italian Sausage & Pepper Trio, Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie—from Domino’s, and Starbucks’ Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches.
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What, if anything, does “artisan” actually mean? Well, originally the word indicated the item was handcrafted. Nowadays, in terms of food sold by national chains, it seems to mean that item has been upgraded, tweaked, or somehow infused with a special, non-standard ingredient. Rather than a simple bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich, we’ve got a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks with gouda cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and an “all-natural” egg—served, of course, on an “oven-toasted Artisan roll.”
Notice how “artisan” is spelled with a capital A? That must mean it’s extra artisan-y.
Domino’s uses the artisan label and makes fun of it at the same time, stating upfront in its ads: “WE’RE NOT ARTISANS. BUT THIS MIGHT CONVINCE YOU WE ARE.” The idea is to give the impression that the pizzas are unique, but not too fancy-schmancy. They’re also not all that expensive—$7.99 for a pizza expected to feed two, though standard-issue pizzas of a similar size go for about $6 apiece when there are promotions or coupons available. (And there always are.)
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Manufacturers have a long history of tossing “NEW!” and “New & Improved!” onto product labels to promote sales. Now that “NEW!” sounds old and tired, the new “NEW!” appears to be “artisan.”
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.