Food & Culture

What Words Like "Fresh" Really Tell You About How Fancy Your Food Is

You are what you eat. So the words that describe your food should tell you something about what you're eating. But that's not always the case. Linguists have studied the words written about food on menus, restaurant reviews, and food packaging, and as linguist Dan Jurafsky explains in his book "The Language of Food," what they've found about the relationship of words to food might not be what you expect.

Fresh, Ripe, and Tasty?

Consider "fresh," "ripe," and "tasty": these are good things, right? But studies of the language of menus show that these words are hardly ever used to describe the food at finer restaurants. Instead, the cheaper the food, the more likely it is to be described with these adjectives. Jurafsky calls them "linguistic fillers." They "seem to promise something special about what you're going to get, but in a subjective enough way that the restaurant sneakily avoids incurring any actual obligation." They fill out the description when you "don't have something really valuable like crab or porterhouse to talk about instead." Filler words are there to puff up the value for show.

Why would a restaurant serve something that isn't fresh or ripe or tasty? It seems like those qualities should be assumed. At an upscale restaurant, they are assumed, so they don't need to be stated. When a restaurant is making those positive qualities explicit in the menu, it implies that there might be a question about whether the food lives up to those qualities.

The More Negative the Better

Food that wants you to think of it as high quality tends to be associated with negative words. For a class Jurafsky was teaching on the language of food, one student decided to take a look at the language on chip bags, comparing the expensive brands to the cheap brands. Negative words like "no," "nothing," "don't," and "unhealthy" were more likely to be found on the more expensive items. They show up in phrases like "nothing fake," "no trans fats," "never fried," and "we don't wash out the natural potato flavor." Health-related claims like this show up six times more often on expensive brands, even if they aren't necessarily healthier. None of the chips in the study contained trans fats but only the expensive ones mentioned that.

The purpose of these claims is to make you focus on what's different about them. Since chips are generally known to be unhealthy, a more expensive brand wants to emphasize why they are not like other chips. A negatively framed phrase like "no fluorescent orange fingertips" invites a comparison to a snack you know to be less than good for you and encourages you to see this snack as the opposite. But you pay for that feeling of justification. Looking at the statistics on price, the researchers found that "a bag of potato chips costs four cents more per ounce for every additional negative word on the bag."

Sex and Drug Metaphors

Food is sustenance, but it can also be indulgence. What kind of indulgence? It depends on how fancy it is. A study by Jurafsky and colleagues of millions of online reviews of restaurants found that sex metaphors such as "seductively seared foie gras" or descriptions of dessert as "orgasmic" were more frequently used in reviews of expensive restaurants, and the more sex mentions there were, the more expensive the restaurant. Positive experiences of pricey food were conceived of as sensual pleasures.

For cheap restaurants, the metaphor of choice was drugs, where food was described as "like crack" or "a fix." Even when the review was positive, the cheaper, more greasy or caloric foods were cast as "addicting" and somehow to blame for the indulgence.

Is fancy, expensive food actually more fresh, healthy and full of sensual pleasure? Not necessarily, but the language used to describe our food betrays underlying assumptions about our relationship to it, whether it's our love or our drug, tasty or not.

Arika Okrent received a joint Ph.D. in the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychology's Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the University of Chicago. She has also earned her first-level certification in Klingon.

For more about how words affect our culinary choices, check out "The Language of Food" by Dan Jurafsky. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Arika Okrent February 12, 2018

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