American food preferences and path dependence

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It is a truth universally acknowledged [at least outside the US] that American chocolate sucks. This observation serves as synechdoche for the general sense that Americans are philistines who are only interested in McDonalds and Budweiser. In the particular case of chocolate, however, the story is rather more interesting. The dominant chocolate in the US is Hersheys and for historical reasons Hersheys has a very distinct flavor:
Hershey process milk chocolate, invented by Milton S. Hershey, founder of The Hershey Company, can be produced more economically since it is less sensitive to the freshness of the milk. Although the process is still a trade secret, experts speculate that the milk is partially lipolyzed, producing butyric acid, which stabilizes the milk from further fermentation. This compound gives the product a particular sour, "tangy" taste, to which the American public has become accustomed, to the point that other manufacturers now simply add butyric acid to their milk chocolates.

As with beer (another oft-maligned American product which I'll get to in a minute), it's not like Americans don't know how to make chocolate that's good by non-US standards (exhibits A-G: Scharffen Berger [now owned by Hersheys, btw.], Guittard, Devries, Askinosie, Amano, Patric, Tcho), it's just a case of path dependence. Americans are used to a particular flavor, and as the passage above suggests, actively reject chocolate without that. Interestingly, I just got back from the UK, where I picked up a few bars of the legendary Cadbury Dairy Milk only to find it not at all as I remembered. Terence Spies suggests that this may be a problem in product handling but the above Wikipedia article suggests that they may have actually screwed with the formula, which, if true, is baffling.

I spent a lot of my time in the UK drinking and came away with a single observation: British beer is astonishingly bad, overly sweet, flat, thin, and almost utterly without hop flavor. I was mostly drinking local beers but I also tried Guinness and Bass, both of which I've had in the US, and while the Guinness was all right, the Bass seemed to differ from the US version in the same way as all the others. I attribute part of the difference here to the temperature (British beers are served far warmer) and lower level of carbonation due to cask conditioning, with the resulting lower level of carbonic acid. But the primary difference seems to be far less hops, both in terms of bittering and aroma; conversely my British companion informed me that they find American beers way too hoppy. (For the record, when I was in Germany and the Czech Republic, I found their beers perfectly fine). I don't have a complete theory for this, but I'm guessing it's another path dependence issue, in this case due to prohibition gutting the American alcohol market and leaving only a small number of breweries focusing on Czech pilsner style beers. This created a population bottleneck, and when the beer market in the US re-expanded with the American craft brew movement in the 1980s and 1990s it drifted in a totally different direction from that found in its ancestral population, one focusing on much higher levels of bitterness and hoppiness.

I don't intend to offer a defense of McDonalds, however.


Acknowledgement: This post produced with assistance from Terence Spies of Cacaolab, who originally told me about the Hershey process.


There is a scene in "The French Connection II" where Gene Hackman's character is rescued after having been abducted and drugged by the villain. The French police put him in a cell to forcibly detox him, and at one point offer him chocolate (presumably French or Swiss chocolate). He violently spurns it, and demands Hershey (there is a Hershey reference in the original as well). My mother always took it as a sign of mental derangement to ask for Hershey's...

My US-born friends have no trouble recognizing the inferiority of the Hershey stuff and adopting Chocovic or Valrhona as found in Trader Joe's.

The key unmentioned factor here, I suspect, is psychoactivity. If what gets people liking chocolate or beer in the first place is the resulting buzz, then of course the flavors that accompany that buzz in one's experience will be the ones that become appealing by association.

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