What is Tesco Real Food?

Tesco Real Food is the name of of Tesco’s recipe magazine and website, Tesco.com/realfood.

Launched by Tesco PLC in 2011,  the magazine is given away free by Tesco six times a year as a marketing promotion (see pic above).

Tesco sells real food in the sense it is tangible, not imaginary. But Tesco food is not what this Real Food Lover calls real food.

I have had this definition on my Real Food Lover blog since 2008.

“What do I mean by real food? As close to nature as it can get. I want mine grown organically – without chemicals and with respect, as close to my home as possible. And wholefoody and unprocessed too, please.”

Others have a similar definition.

The Real Food Festival says: “Real Food is all about great tasting, sustainably and ethically produced food.”

Real Foods, based in Edinburgh, has, for the last 30 years, sold: “healthy, natural, organic (real) food to the nation at affordable prices.”

In a blog post responding to Tesco’s recent use of the term “real food”, Real Foods writes: “… ‘real food’ is food from which the body can extract the maximum amount of nutrition with the minimum amount of waste; food in its most natural state with the best bits still left in rather than foods that have been processed so that the goodness has been removed and replaced by chemicals which, if not actually harmful, are nutritionally ’empty’.”

Like the efficient retailer it is, Tesco has done its consumer market research and understands the nation’s need for nourishment. The result is its Real Food marketing initiative. Will it help people eat real food?

The magazine promises 32 “seasonal” recipes on the front cover.

Out of Tesco’s three “Season’s Best” recipes, one features mangoes from Peru. Mangoes are not grown in this country. They can never be seasonal for the UK.

Ten out of the 32 “seasonal” recipes were puddings with no fresh produce at all. Some were for Valentine’s day, Pancake day and Mother’s day. Are these annual celebrations what Tesco means by “seasonal”?

If so, Tesco has misunderstood the importance of seasonal for real food lovers.

Eating seasonally is about enjoying freshly-harvested produce. The fresher and more seasonal the produce is, the more nutrients it has and the better it tastes. That is one of the (many) reasons why local is important because it means the food is fresher when you eat it.

Tesco Real Food magazine’s current issue invites readers to Love Local and check out online its “wide variety of food from local producers around the UK”.

I checked out Tesco.com/local with my Bristol postcode and was directed to the Gloucestershire region. I was offered only eight products, four of which were beer. Yes, all good local produce, including Pieminister pies and cold-pressed rape seed oil.

But eight products do not a local-food-supply-chain make.

Like most supermarkets, Tesco sources globally not locally.

This article on apples gives us a clue.

According to the Telegraph, at the height of the UK apple-growing season in 2010, Tesco sourced only ten per cent of apples from Britain. The rest were imported. However its billboard ads promised ten different British varieties (subject to availability).

I get the feeling Tesco likes using words such as real and seasonal and local and organic because they sound good. But does Tesco subscribe to the principles and practices that underpin these words?

Tesco Real Food magazine’s current issue has an advertising feature for Tesco Organic. It says organic produce is grown “with reduced reliance on fertilisers”.

This is incorrect. Let me explain. Natural fertilisers – such as composted green and animal manures, and nitrogen-rich crops – are crucial to organic farming. This is how the soil is nourished.

On the other hand, chemical fertilisers are banned in organic farming because they strip the soil of life and cause environmental damage including water pollution.

Tesco’s Organic range is truly organic, and I am not questioning that [added after publication for clarification]. But does Tesco understand organic farming methods? Or is it using organic to make Tesco’s other products – such as intensively-farmed chickens – seem more wholesome?

Here is another example of the mismatch between Tesco Real Food and the reality of Tesco food.

As far as I know (please tell me I am wrong) Tesco still sells foods with trans fats despite a promise to ban them by 2011. Trans fats may make food last longer, but they are essentially candle-wax with huge health risks.

Trans fats are not real food. In fact, they are not even food.

Tesco’s Real Food magazine is glossy, handbag-size and beautifully-presented. In thick bold type, it emphasises words such as “nutritious” and “soul-warming”.

Is Tesco Real Food  the marketing version of trans fats, a cheap filler that tricks us into thinking we’ve been nourished?

Real food producers can tell you exactly what is in their food: how and when and where it was grown, reared, produced and processed – how the land was fertilised, and the farm animals cared for.

Why is Tesco spending its marketing millions pretending to be real?


32 responses to “What is Tesco Real Food?

  1. Very interesting article Elisabeth. You have highlighted several issues that so many of us are concerned about. Thank you.


  2. Thanks, John. It was quite a marathon. I dreamed twice about writing this post after seeing the magazine on Saturday. So I knew I had to do it.


  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    This is an interesting article and part of a debate that is certainly well worth having.

    I’ll lay my cards on the table first and say that I promote fresh fruit and veg in the UK – from various parts of the world. I was previously a journalist writing about the fresh produce industry.

    I love fresh fruit and veg. I agree with many of your comments, but if something tastes great and is sourced ethically, then why not buy it? If we ate only UK produce in our winter we’d be on a uninspiring (I think) diet of root veg, apples, pears and quince for several weeks at least. Everywhere has its peak seasons, and if you know when you buy from abroad you can get some fantastic fresh produce. And beware: an English apple isn’t always the freshest on supermarkets shelves. If a Peruvian mango is in season and delicious then why not? If you would eat a Spanish chorizo or drink a South African Sauvingon, then is it out of the question to eat fruit from these countries?

    Just a start of a discussion I hope – I’d be interested to hear your, or other readers’ views.

    All the best


    • Thanks, Dominic. Yes, love a debate!

      To clarify, I have nothing against imported produce. Where would I be without bananas, chocolate, tea and coffee, for a start?

      However I am bothered that produce that could be grown in this country is unnecessarily imported – such as apples in the apple-growing season.

      Yes, it is true that some domestic produce is not as fresh as it could be – and that means we should look more closely at how it is stored and transported.

      Personally I think you get fresher and cheaper fresh produce from greengrocers – if you are lucky to live somewhere where they still exist. Veg boxes are cheaper and fresher too.

      Yes, Tesco’s Peruvian mango was in season – according to the Peruvian season. But that is not the true meaning of seasonal. Is it?

      I am not against mangoes from any country! I like mangoes. I am not hard-line. I believe the key to healthy eating is moderation and balance. And that is precisely what bugs me about our supermarket system – which sells 80% of the food we eat in the UK – it is is totally OUT of balance.


      • @fruitandvegboy

        Hi Elizabeth,

        Sorry for the short delay in getting back to your reply (I always leave my debating until the end of the day…)

        I do agree with the premise that, if something is in peak season and great quality in the UK, then best practice should be to source fruit and veg from here. But I also think we should celebrate what is the best eating produce at any time, regardless of where it’s from.

        Near the entrance of the Covered Market in Oxford, there’s a fantastic greengrocer – I wish I had a picture – where they do this really well. There are Turkish figs, Brazilian melons, Mexican guava and so on – mixed in with the British produce. It’s a sea of colour, everything is marked clearly with a flag of the country – and because the owner knows what she’s doing, whatever you buy will usually eat really well.

        You mentioned wholesale markets, home to some of the most knowledgeable fresh fruit and veg people in the country. They will also happily talk about the “season” for South African stone fruit (now!) or whatever they know has the best eating quality at this time.

        There is also the question of timing. With polytunnels and cold storage, seasons have become stretched further and futher. Is an apple from the southern hemisphere that has reached the shelves after 10 days less – or more – ‘in season’ than an apple from the British apple that has been in cold storage for four weeks?

        Supermarkets should absolutely not be allowed to hijack words to market food that doesn’t fit the description on the pack. However, I do believe a concept of “in season” that allows us to appreciate the best fruit and veg from wherever it might be grown, is healthy and allows us to enjoy a much greater variety of fresh produce when it is at is best.

        Finally, a quick change of topic: organics, aren’t necessarily ‘chemical free’ are they. Isn’t there a list of acceptable naturally occuring pesticides that can be used in organic production? I would be good to get clarification on this as I know the list is smaller than is used to be.

        Thanks and apologies for going on. My favourite subject!


      • Hi Dominic

        Thanks for lively debate – one of my favourite topics too.

        Also debate is the way to wrestle with different opinions – and we all have them. Even people who agree have
        different opinions. So debate is crucial to help reach mutual understanding and some form of consensus.

        Can I take the chemicals point first?

        I was talking in this piece about fertilisers – not pesticides.

        Tesco said in its Real Food magazine that organic produce is grown “with reduced reliance on fertilisers”.

        What does Tesco mean by ‘fertiliser’? If it means the synthetic or chemical type manufactured in a factory that in the long-term destroys soil vitality – then that type is banned under organic standards.

        But if Tesco means fertiliser made from biological processes (recycled green manures, crop rotation and so on) then that kind of fertiliser is vital in organic farming. Organic farming seeks to build up organic matter in the soil, to enrich it and create more soil life. In turn this produces soil that, for instance, retains water thus protecting against drought and floods.

        Healthy soil also produces healthy crops that can withstand disease. Ditto for the animals and humans that eat crops grown in healthy soil. Heathy soil is the basis of organic
        farming. It was the increasing commercial use (1920s onwards) of factory-made chemical fertiliser that gave rise to organic farming. Drawing on the wisdom of traditional farming and the latest from the biological sciences, organic farming had to define itself against the commercial vested interests of the chemical companies.

        As for pesticides, about 350 different ones are allowed in non-organic farming, and only seven in UK organic farming. This article gives the low-down


      • I am using the WordPress App on my phone to reply. Hence some techno-hitches!

        As I was saying, Dominic – here is an article (by Soil Association policy director, Peter Melchett) which I believe answers the pesticide question.



      • Hi Dominic

        Yes, I agree: let’s celebrate the wonderful produce that arrives from far-off places at the peak of its seasonality!

        My own personal preference is for local seasonal food: what is in season in the country I am in.

        I once visited Ghana. Their street food is something else – including the most amazing oranges I have ever tasted. Gradually it dawned on me why: these oranges had never flown and probably never been refrigerated either.

        But I also love visiting the Turkish shops in Green Lane in London and the Asian and Caribbean shops in Bristol – I love the amazing array of produce: the vast bunches of fresh coriander for instance as opposed to the few sprigs under plastic in supermarkets.

        In fact I would rather buy from such shops than buy organic in a supermarket….

        As for supermarkets hijacking words that do not fit the pack description (as you say), yes.

        And it is complex. Because Tesco does sell organic that is organic – the food does fit the description on the pack.

        And I also think it is calculated to create a healthy image for Tesco.

        I was interested in this quote from a wholefoods storekeeper interviewed in Natural Products Magazine (one of my favourite publications):

        “The independents build a market and the multiples come along and steal it!”


  4. Excellent post. In answer to your final point, they are doing it because they think it will help them make more profits 😦


  5. This is one of the MANY reasons that i will never shop at Tesco. Thank you for taking the trouble to write an interesting and indepth piece on it.


    • Thanks, Grace. And thanks for taking the trouble to comment – I appreciate.

      Grace is a wonderful caring masseuse (is that the right word?) based in Bristol using organic products for facials etc – Winkler-endorsed!


  6. Pretending to be real – indeed! Real, seasonal, local and organic are just marketing words to them! Fascinating article and very informative – as always. Thank goodness I can always rely on you to bring the truth home


  7. I’m reading this at a time when I’m trying to find a word to differentiate what I sell in my deli compared to supermarkets. Five years ago I used the term ‘real food’. We’ve gone through ‘local’, ‘provenance’,’hand-made’, ‘freshly baked’ ,’fresh cooked’ etc It seems that every time independents find a way to educate customers the theme is hijacked and abused by the big guys.


  8. Thanks Elisabeth for letting us know the ‘real deal’ about Tesco’s marketing practices. Reminds me General Electric’s slogan ‘we ‘bring good things to life’ when it actually manufactures weapons systems. Chillingly Orwellian. Do they take us for fools?


    • Thanks, Philippa. I have not heard that strapline from General Electric – indeed chilling Orwellian double-speak.

      Companies spend marketing millions to pull the wool over our eyes. They must think it’s worth it and that it works?


  9. Thanks, Roz – yes, that says it. Real, seasonal, local and organic – precious words reduced to meaningless marketing-speak.


  10. What a well written, thought-out article. The comments all make an excellent read too. I must add you to my list of worthwhile blogs to follow.


    • Hi Nicola

      Thanks so much for your words. I did indeed sweat over this post! Hours and hours – and hours!

      I too try to live without wheat because it does not agree with me. So I look forward to visiting your blog and doing reciprocal links. Yay!



  11. Thanks for this article. I appreciate the simplicity with which you explain your argument, and the sensitivity with which you conduct your replies!
    I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve written, and have not shopped at Tesco for over 7 years – though my gripe with them stretches way beyond their co-opting of language and use of greenwash. However, these are clear and important issues which will help us see beyond the veil of consumer-care they like to parade in magazines like ‘Real’ Food, and into the murky depths of their profit-driven motives.


  12. Elisabeth, you have laid out the facts behind Tesco’s weasly words, and unpacked the double speak.. It does not suffice for agricultural conglomerates to use words like “farm fresh”, to make it true.

    “Real food ” means different things to different people. To me, it is not vegan, not necessarily organic, but is food as close to as nature intended, (and generally, an organic small holding is as close as you will get) , and the more delicious for it. It includes the food animals feed on, and how they live, with room to roam, and with as few chemicals as possible injected into either the animal or the feed. It also includes seasons, (strawberries in the summer, autumn apples), and in my book, yes, where ever they are.

    In Italy, say, you can still throw together a delicious meal by simmering their sweet tomatoes, with their pungent garlic and basil, and some olive oil. I then return to the endless supermarket aisles full of processed food, and feel quite uninspired. What shall we eat today? I thank goodness for “real food” movements so I can still buy properly baked bread, without additives to lengthen shelf life, and sweet French creamy butter. I would rather eat a small amount of quality meat, than chew my way through cheap and tasteless flesh. As you say Elisabeth, moderation and balance.

    I think the issue is cultural as well, that is why “ethnic” shops are so valuable. Other parts of the world have hung onto to their palate, and know how to set the standards. Long may they do so, because I can see the creep even in my beloved European neighbours.

    One of these days, I fear my partner’s joke will become true. “Oh yes, all our food is locally sourced, it comes from the Tescos just down the road”.

    So for the sake of our long term health, for the sake of unnecessary animal suffering, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of food control, for the sake of unfair market practices, for the sake of genuine choice, and for the sake of one of the great joys in ours lives, carry on the good work.


  13. You can get a feel of how Tesco uses language by looking at the pictures at the bottom of this blog. This is just a very small example of the mess around the outskirts of Tesco, Eastgate.

    Much of the rubbish, mainly Tesco bags, is in the beautiful River Frome and the trees that surround it’s banks. Look over the fence into Tesco car-park and every trolley shed is emblazoned with large letters:

    ‘Tesco – caring for the environment’


  14. Words of Mouth Mike, Please can we meet up this week at a time of your choosing and convenience to pick up the Tesco carrier bags you photographed and fill them with any other detritus that we find? GIve me the time a location and I will be there. I function at my best from really early in the morning to early evening. If we publish on here perhaps several might join us. May I encourage you to make it soon while passions are running high. I am available from dawn tomorrow (Monday) morning. Adrian


  15. Hi Adrian,

    I could do some stuff this evening or possibly tomorrow evening. Personally I think Tesco should doing this themselves, using some of the slave / cheap labour they are boasting about creating.

    Let us try and make this high profile so that we can get them to take ‘caring for the environment’ a bit more seriously.



  16. I love that we have so many food lovers in Frome. Our markets ensure we get access to real food. New developments here in Frome might alter this quite dramatically. http://www.frome.tv/2012/03/crowd-stunned-to-find-developer-hidden-in-audience-at-frome-question-time/


  17. Great article.

    I wonder how far the ‘local’ lines Tesco have travelled before reaching their ‘home’ supermarket?
    It is no more than 3 miles from Thatchers Cider to Tesco in WsM, I can’t imagine the bottles on Tesco’s shelves have done fewer than a couple of hundred miles. I may well be wrong, I doubt it though.


  18. Hi Elisabeth,

    What a great article and what an interesting debate. Indeed it seems ‘real food’ can mean many things to many people but that it definitely does not mean processed foods or un-ethical food production methods.

    As I work for an organic natural foods company called Real Foods, this debate is particularly close to my heart as our name is appearing in supermarkets (in a logo that is very similar to our own branding!).

    It is so encouraging to read the debate above. Joanna Blythman’s first principle of eating is ‘Base your diet on real, unprocessed food’. It seems from the comments here that we are already becoming a nation of responsible and thinking food consumers.



  19. Wow, people! I have just learnt from WordPress annual report that my blog’s busiest day of 2012 was 29 February with 396 views. The most popular post that day was What is Tesco Real Food?.


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