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Foreign familiarities

Why your favorite foods taste different abroad

Story By Daisy Dow

Everyone’s tastes are a little different, be that in the clothes we wear, the people we befriend, or the food we eat. Humans cling to what is familiar, and the same is true with our habits in foreign places. If you were to visit the corner shop in a foreign country, the onslaught of American brands might surprise you. A Kit Kat bar, packet of ketchup or bag of potato chips might taste totally different than what you were expecting. The difference in taste has nothing to do with your jet lag or even the time difference. When it comes to big brand foods, the differences in flavor from nation to nation reflect a complicated set of considerations dealing with regional policy, environmental concerns and cultural receptivity.

More of the good stuff

While taste is a matter of subjectivity, there is a widely held belief that European chocolate tastes better than that made in America. Even for those brands that carry over between the two continents, different regulations specific to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. or the European Medicines Agency make it necessary for companies to alter how they make and package their products. In Europe, for example, it is required that chocolate goods contain a minimum of 14 percent dry milk solids, whereas the U.S. standard only calls for 12 percent. Europe mandates higher levels of milk fat and cocoa content as well — it doesn’t hurt that these ingredients contribute an extra creamy flavor. Hershey’s, an iconic American chocolate company, tastes tangy and sour to European audiences. Although Hershey’s process is safeguarded as an industry secret, rumor has it that the chocolate’s unique flavor profile is created in a process called ​​lipolysis that breaks down milk fat into other fatty acids.

Pay the preservative piper

With so much chocolate being sent to shelves around the world, it is difficult to anticipate how quickly a bar of chocolate would be consumed after being packaged. The mass mobilization of food products made it imperative to extend chocolate’s shelf life, even if that meant altering the ingredients with preservatives to save on the cost of manufacturing it. American chocolatiers who sought to establish their brands on a national scale had to sacrifice traditional ingredients for convenience and utility. Natural preservatives like butyric acid or other additives have become commonplace in American chocolate, contributing to the nuances in its taste compared with European chocolates. This trend carried on through fast-food chains, large potato chip brands and condiment companies. Here are some preservatives banned in Europe, but are still allowed in the U.S.:

  • Titanium dioxide (found in Skittles, Starburst, some baked goods and soups) 
  • Potassium bromate (found in some white flour, bread and rolls)
  • Color dyes (Yellow No. 5, No. 6; Red No. 40) 
  • Brominated vegetable oil (found in some popular drinks, but less common today)

Origins of the ingredients

The average candy consumer has taken note of the artificial ingredients sneaking their way onto the ingredients list. Over the past decade, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have entered into discussions about sustainable agriculture in response to population growth. European countries have resisted GMO crops for the most part, whereas the U.S. has allowed 11 major crops to be supplemented with their modified counterparts. A brand’s use of inorganic foods and chemical preservatives differs country to country in accordance with the particular laws that are in place to limit their consumption.

American brands in translation

Lay’s (USA) = Walkers (UK)

Milky Way (USA) = Mars Bar (the rest of the world)

Campbell’s Soup (USA) = Batchelors (UK)

KFC (USA) = PFK “Poulet Frit Kentucky” (Canada)

Hell man’s (USA) = Best Foods (Asia)

Smarties (USA) = Rockets (Canada)

Burger King (USA) = Hungry Jack’s (Australia) 

Palate appeal

The environmental, political and legal factors that go into food might sour its taste in your mind. However, the major reasons a food tastes different in another country has to do with local palates. Over the history of the world, cultures have formed around food, often using locally sourced spices to flavor their traditions and celebrations. Through generations different taste preferences become ingrained in our DNA. Even within a lifetime, the power of nostalgia might make some foods taste better than others for no particular reason. 

Brands take into consideration regional preferences when considering what ingredients to use, the portion size, the marketing imagery and the flavors to prioritize. Some cultures use dairy products in many food groups and others find the taste unbearable. Areas where particular fruits grow likely enjoy those flavors compared to those that are wholly new to their taste buds. Anthropologists, food scientists and marketers alike study the trends that indicate what people want to see in a particular place in the world.