Trader Joe’s Has an Authenticity Problem

published Jun 19, 2019
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One Sunday this winter I decided it was too cold to go outside to grocery shop, and as a result I found myself rummaging through my freezer for something to bring to work for lunch on Monday. Lucky for me, my sister-roommate had just done a Trader Joe’s run, and I was greeted by a veritable bounty of frozen meals. I settled on a package of vegan tikka masala and flipped it over to see how long it would take to microwave in the office kitchen — but I stopped cold as I read the the description on the back.

“Our Vegan Tikka Masala delivers an authentic taste of India with very little effort (on your part),” it read.

The food nerd in me — who wrote a 150-page thesis on the connection between race, colonialism, and the use of the word “authenticity” in Lima, Peru’s culinary tourism — was taken aback. I love Trader Joe’s. I eat at least one of their dark chocolate snacks daily, and I actually plan on serving their chicken fried rice at my wedding; but this language rang an alarm bell for me.

What does Trader Joe’s label as authentic? Let’s look!

After the vegan tikka masala box, I ventured out to my local Trader Joe’s to find out if this “authentic” label was a trend beyond the one meal. The other post-work shoppers weren’t thrilled as I slowly moved down the aisles and turned over each frozen meal and read the descriptions, but the results were pretty striking. It turns out Trader Joe’s very liberally uses the word “authentic” in its food descriptions — but almost exclusively in reference to Indian and Mexican dishes.

European foods, apparently, don’t require qualification as to their authenticity. The first item I picked up was TJ’s frozen “Linguine in Clam Sauce,” the description of which said, “It’s made for us in Italy” and “It’s a timeless Italian dinner that’s ready in no time at all” — without any explicit claims of “authenticity.” In the bread section, I saw French pain au lait that used words like “a classic French breakfast,” and Italian flatbread that said it was “an old-world dough recipe.” Both of those breads heavily highlighted their countries of origin, but were not explicitly labeled as “authentic.”

Mexican tortillas, on the other hand, were described as having “authentic toast points and traditional flavors and textures.” Similarly, the Indian naan was labeled as “imported authentic Indian bread.” Another item that caught my eye was in the canned and jarred items aisle. The king of Trader Joe’s salsa section is “Salsa Autentica” — not merely “authentic,” but “authentic” in Spanish! (Somewhat interestingly, TJ’s didn’t use the word “authentic” on any of its Chinese dishes, although these meals are sold under the “Trader Ming’s” label, a curiously named sub-brand that also smacks of an unspoken assumption of authenticity.)

On my subway ride home from this investigative trip I was so deep in thought that I missed my stop. Why does TJ’s use the word “authentic” only for certain cuisines and not others?

There’s a wealth of evidence that tells us that consumers place a higher value on items they believe to be “authentic.” A 2014 study from Stanford Business school concluded that in “advanced consumer economies, consumers are buying on the basis of their interpretation of the product and its story,” more than ever before. With this word and all its connotations, TJ’s is playing into our own desires for connection to a story in our food.  

But it’s also clear that authenticity is a highly subjective concept that has often been used by white tastemakers to stereotype people of color in the food world. Really, you say? Why all the mulling here over one little word, on one little frostbitten box of lunch? But it matters: By marketing certain foods as “authentic,” Trader Joe’s is subtly supporting racist and colonial hierarchies — which no one wants to see from “your neighborhood grocery store.”

Why the word “authentic” has a whole host of problems (sorry, TJ’s).

If Trader Joe’s were using “authentic” to describe all of its globally inspired foods (from French to Italian to Mexican), that would be one thing. But the fact that Mexico and India are singled out is quite another. These are both countries that were once colonized by big European superpowers and that still feel the effects of the economic, racial, social, and gendered hierarchies of that colonialism today. By using the word “authentic” to single out these two countries, TJ’s is reinforcing some subtle yet truly important assumptions.

What are those assumptions? To describe an entire nation’s food as either authentic or inauthentic is to reduce it to one singular conception of what that food can be while ignoring regional differences, class differences, and historical precedents.

In truth, there’s no single arbiter of what “authentic” means — but if there were, it certainly wouldn’t be Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s uses “authenticity” as a marketing ploy to mask the fact that they are a large American-based corporation mass-producing these meals, invoking a false image of a home-cooked meal or perhaps of a recipe that has been passed down through generations, pure and untouched by outside influence. This image completely disregards the fact that these cuisines were affected by outsiders coming into each respective nation under colonialism and afterwards.

The word “authentic” invokes a fictional purity, a nonexistent culture that existed before colonialism disrupted and stirred up these places with new influences and expectations. The word “authentic” erases the complexity of present-day cuisine for a fantasy of simplicity that denies history and certainly does not exist in the modern world. And yet Trader Joe’s is using it as a standard to broadcast the worthiness of these foods.

Vegan tikka masala is a particularly interesting example of this language at Trader Joe’s because tikka masala has long been a contested dish and is still immensely popular in both England and Scotland. In 2001 the British Foreign Secretary said, in a now-famous speech, ”Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”

This ignores the colonial relationship between Britain and India that was fraught with violence, and boils it down to a neutral sidestep of a phrase: “external influences.” (On a scale of 1 to 10, just how galling is being called an “external influence” by your former, much-resented colonial oppressor?) To describe TJ’s tikka masala as an “authentic taste of India,” when India is an enormous country with countless regional cuisines, is also to uphold the British colonial stereotype of India as one homogenous nation, producing one fixed “authentic” version of a dish, now reproduced in this small frosty box, direct to your freezer.

And let me not forget to mention one more, most obvious, problem: Tikka masala is frequently made with cream, which makes claiming vegan tikka masala as authentic all the more ironic. It’s almost like the word “authentic” doesn’t actually mean anything? Hmm.

Let’s take the word “authentic” out of the marketing playbook, OK?

In his book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, food historian Jeffrey Pilcher writes, “The belief that people have the right to determine their own identities and manners of expressing themselves is basic to the ideal of cultural citizenship.” That is the crux of this issue. By imposing a superficial label of authenticity on these foods, in order to entice us, Trader Joe’s is challenging that basic right and making a cultural determination of which cuisines need to be seen as “pure” or “authentic” in order to be attractive.

When you look at the frozen foods aisle in Trader Joe’s you might see French flatbread, shepherd’s pie, pizza, turkey burgers, and basically every pasta dish imaginable. None of these items are described as authentic because they don’t have to be. Trader Joe’s decided (whether consciously or not) that Italy, France, Britain, and the U.S. have food that is worthy of being purchased regardless of whether they call it authentic.

And of course, none of it is “authentic,” because the word is practically meaningless. Plus, beyond the subtle and damaging implications of this language, calling any frozen, mass-produced dinner “authentic” to cuisines with such rich history as India’s is just plain silly.

But let’s not miss the fact too that when you look at the frozen foods aisle in Trader Joe’s you don’t only see these quite frankly dumb and hubristic labels; you also see all different kinds of people purchasing all different kinds of foods. This is a good thing. The fact that my friend in Texas tried Russian food for the first time because she bought Trader Joe’s pelmeni is also a good thing. There is no denying that TJ’s makes healthy, delicious global-inspired foods affordable and accessible, which is, yes, a very good thing.

So Trader Joe’s, this is me standing in front of you, asking you to help me take a good thing and turn it into a great thing by getting rid of the word “authentic” once and for all.

Credit: ablokhin/Getty Images