Kid in supermarket
Culture, Economics, Non Recipes

Why choice and variety in the supermarket are an illusion

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We are consumer societies in the Western world. If we enter a supermarket we have tons of different products to choose from. It seems like there is nothing that doesn’t exist.

But if you take a closer look you will quickly find out that:

  • A few large food manufacturers dominate the market.
  • Most unique food products are niche products. The few very successful brands that everyone knows all have the same flavor profile.
  • The taste of many products relies on salt, sugar, fat, and artificial aromas. The produce that an average consumer is able to afford is not very flavorful. Unless you grow vegetables and fruits yourself or buy from a farmer, you are not able to buy tasty produce in Western supermarkets. The vegetables and fruits are bland, the meat is watery, and don’t even get me started on the cheese and eggs. German supermarkets might offer you cheap and safe food but it is flavorless.

One of the biggest downfalls of our modern agriculture and food industry is that flavor variety is lost. Often all the carrots, cucumbers, and beets that you can purchase in the supermarket are the same cultivar. They look great and taste like what a consumer expects. It’s the same taste every time you purchase a carrot.

Bananas on the supermarket shelf
Most of the bananas sold in Western supermarkets are the same cultivar even though many different banana cultivars exist.

If there is any deviation to the standard taste, many consumers will be upset. They want the same taste all year round as they get it from visiting a chain restaurant like McDonald’s where the food always tastes the same no matter where they are.

Manufacturers often sell the same product, just in a different package and setting

Our eating behavior develops during childhood. Children get conditioned to prefer certain standardized tastes. A lot of children in the Western world eat a diet that isn’t varied enough. They will carry their taste preferences into adulthood and then keep eating like a child even though they might consume a different product.

Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at the Ferrero product range in Germany. Ferrero is best known for its sweet chocolate spread called Nutella. Many kids love Nutella. But when they grow into adults they might ditch the habit of eating Nutella bread for breakfast. Yet that is not a problem for the Ferrero brand. They have other products with the exact same flavor profile which are marketed to a more adult audience.

Take Ferrero’s pralines, for example, the fanciest one being Ferrero Rocher. It’s wrapped in a golden foil and a popular gift among adults. Germans love the combination of hazelnut and chocolate. Hazelnut and chocolate is the flavor of Nutella. It brings back childhood memories. The Ferrero Rocher is a praline that has a hazelnut in the center, that is surrounded by a Nutella-like cream and a hard hazelnut-chocolate coating. It’s Nutella, just in a different form.

Datei:Ferrero Rocher ak.jpg
The Ferrero Rocher is a praline for adult Nutella lovers. Picture Source: Wikipedia.

But Ferrero does not only sell Nutella and Rocher. They have a whole Nutella-like product range for all age groups. At its core, all of the following products are the same:

  • Hanuta for kids which is a waffle with a soft Nutella-hazelnut filling
  • Duplos for teenage customers which is a waffle surrounded with hazelnut and milk chocolate
  • Ferrero kisses which is the same product as a Rocher but without the hazelnuts in the crust. Instead, there are only hazelnuts and a Nutella-cream in the center. This product is also marketed to adults.

There is a product for every age group. You can always buy one of these products as a gift for someone and no one will be disappointed. It’s a flavor combination that almost every German gets conditioned to like from a very early age: Hazelnut + Sugar + Chocolate = Good.

Why many American candies are not popular in Germany

But what if you are an American and want to give a German a “special” gift from your country. You might choose one of these products among the most popular American candy bars:

  • Reese’s peanut butter bars or cups
  • Snickers
  • Butterfingers
  • Hershey’s milk chocolate bar
  • Almond joy

Do you recognize something? First, where are the hazelnuts? Somehow they are not as popular in America as they are in Europe. But that shouldn’t be a problem because Americans love the combination of nuts and chocolate as well. Germans like almonds and peanuts but most don’t like peanut butter. So snickers and almond joy should be fine with a German.

But don’t ever gift a German Reese’s peanut butter cups or butterfingers unless you know his or her taste preferences very well. Most people here think any candy with peanut butter in it is disgusting. German’s don’t spread peanut butter on their bread. Americans are accustomed to this taste. Thus when they grow to be adults these chocolate bars bring back fond childhood memories to them.

Peantu butter sandwich
The peanut butter sandwich: Unknown in Germany.

A German doesn’t have this emotional connection with peanut butter. It is not a standard taste in Germany. Many people here reject it because they haven’t become accustomed to it during their childhood. I can tolerate peanut butter but I am not a big fan of it either. It is a niche product in Germany.

It’s also not advisable to gift a German Hershey’s chocolate bars. This chocolate is produced with a special process starting from fresh milk instead of milk powder. The milk gets evaporated and forms strong fruity, caramel-like flavors. This masks the bitter cocoa taste but most Europeans can’t handle the strange fruitiness of this chocolate. Our preference for how chocolate is supposed to taste has been ingrained in us from childhood. If a product deviates from that, we tend to reject it.

The number one rule to develop a successful food product

Some people in Europe even go as far as saying things like American chocolate or cheese is inferior to European products. But that is just a myth. The producers on each continent just produce the food that we have been accustomed to from a young age. To launch a successful food product you always need to offer a product that is accepted among a wide range of customers and that brings back childhood memories.

It’s a bit counterintuitive. Business people might tell you that your product needs to be unique. The product needs to serve a specific niche. But what needs to be unique for food products is the marketing and packaging of the product. The taste of the product should never be something rare or out of the ordinary if you want to sell it in a supermarket. Consumers don’t want to be surprised if they open a cheese or chocolate bar. They want the product to taste like they expect and know it from childhood.

What your parents feed you is most likely what you will want to eat in the future. If your parents regularly give you industry products from a young age then that is very favorable for the few large food manufacturers that produce almost all of the supermarket food. If you get accustomed to the Maggi taste early on, you will keep buying these products well into adulthood. They can sell you 500 different packets of Maggi seasoning in the supermarket with the same basic flavor profile and you will be satisfied that you have the illusion of such a large choice.

Cheese in supermarket
We can choose between all these cheeses. But do they really taste much different from each other?

The child products of the large manufacturers have the same flavor profile as the adult products. Your mother might feed you cereals for small children. But once you’re a teen, you don’t need to be ashamed of eating cereals for kids. You can buy the package that is branded for teens. Later you can switch to a more “premium” and “health-oriented” product marketed to adults or elderly people. The basic taste always stays the same even among the different brands: Sweet cereals with chocolate or fruit flavor. Or have you ever eaten savory cereals with onion and broccoli flavor? There are some niche products but most people only buy and enjoy sweet cereals with milk, chocolate, and fruit. Just as they know them from childhood.

Unusual flavor combinations might be the norm somewhere else

You might think that eating savory cereals is weird. And yes, from a Western perspective it is. But that is only because we are so used to it. It’s our childhood habit to eat sweet cereals for breakfast. Let’s look at steamed yeast buns, for example. In Germany, these are almost always served sweet with vanilla sauce. If you go to Asia they love steamed yeast buns as well but they fill them with meat.

Or think about vegetables like red beets. I love them in sweet dishes like in my beet jelly. But most Germans would reject beets in a sweet dish. If you want to enjoy vegetables in a dessert you have to go to a fine-dining place in Germany that incorporates ingredients such as lettuce, cucumbers, or onions into desserts. It’s not a mainstream thing to do. Most people in Germany want chocolate and fruits in their sweet dishes. It’s a childhood habit.

Beet Jelly with Potato Dumplings
Beets can be eaten sweet as a dessert.

In Germany we say: “Was der Bauer nicht kennt, das frisst er nicht.” – The farmer doesn’t eat the things he doesn’t know.

Why we should preserve food diversity

From a liberal point of view, you might ask yourself where’s the problem? After all, the free market solves all our needs. We get what we want from large food manufacturers.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s fine to love Ferrero Rochers or Reese’s peanut butter cups. These are tasty candies. The problem is the general direction the food industry is heading.

The few large manufacturers only have an interest in selling products that have broad customer acceptance. There is little risk or experimentation regarding flavor profiles or ingredients. These companies also have an interest in keeping their ingredient lists as small as possible. If you have 5 products with 10 different nuts in them that is horrible. It’s much simpler to just use peanuts or hazelnuts in all of the products.

The best solution for manufacturers is to add as much of the cheap ingredients (eg. sugar, salt, plant fats, starches, artificial flavors) into the food as possible. The less of the expensive ingredients (eg. fruits, berries, vegetables, nuts, vanilla) are in your food, the higher the profit margin.

Yogurt in supermarket shelf
Yogurt often contains artificial flavors instead of real fruit.

Now, a yogurt with artificial aroma instead of real fruit might taste worse. That is undoubtful for anyone that has grown up eating yogurt with real fruits in it. But if yogurt with the artificial aroma is the standard taste from your childhood, you might grow to prefer this version. As an adult, you will happily buy the yogurt with artificial aroma again without complaint.

The problem is that the food market is not very diverse. A few mega-corporations own all the popular brands. So you often only have the choice between two products with artificial flavor. The manufacturers have an easy game here when it comes to shaping our flavor preferences from a young age.

Why globalization leads to standardized rather than diverse food

It’s not hard to see that processed food in Western countries is one of the main reasons for the obesity epidemic we see today. Products are not designed to have good nutritional value. They are not nourishing. They are designed to be as cheap as possible while achieving an acceptable quality level. The more we get used to these products, the less we tend to complain even if the quality is subpar or only average.

Add to that other modern “achievements” like free trade agreements. At the moment we have an American and a European market. The EU bans many food imports from the US and keeps supporting the local industry. But what will happen once we have a free trade agreement between America and the EU?

The European and American food markets will mingle. Manufacturers don’t want to have hundreds of different recipes for each country. Instead, over time we will all get “educated” to enjoy a new standardized taste. Our food will get less diverse. It won’t matter if we are in Europe or the US. We will find the same processed food on the supermarket shelves.

Coca cola in supermarket
These sodas can be purchased anywhere in the world. Most brands belong to the Coca-Cola Company.

Small and local competitors will be kicked out of the market because they can’t compete with the cheaply imported foreign products. Why would you grow corn in Germany if it is much cheaper to ship it from the US to Germany? Why would consumers eat local American pork if the German import is only half the price?

Germany used to have a long tradition of growing grains like lentils, buckwheat and spelt. Globalization has helped us to outsource most of the grain production. We can eat imported lentils from India or China. It’s much cheaper. However, what people often forget is that these grains that have been grown in Germany are different cultivars. They have a different aroma than lentils from India. We have lost diversity. All over the world people eat the same imported lentil cultivar instead of a uniquely local one.

But if we never encounter the unique tastes of unusual cultivars we will never miss them. We will accept and develop a preference for the bland cultivars the industry tries to sell us. We get conditioned to prefer commonly accepted flavor profiles because these products are often our only choice. In the end, globalization of the food market doesn’t lead to more diversity. It reduces our choices because food gets standardized and unified.

2 Comments

  1. Tim. Great topic! As you indicated previously living in an accepted false reality!

    Had some friends over in the summer for BBQ. home made sirlion and chuck steak ground to hamburg with home made brioche buns!
    Great comments but when I mentioned that I made the burgers and the buns
    The comment back was really you made these, you really need to get a life!

    Why make buns when you can buy them!!

    Thanks

    Have a better New Year!
    Harold

    • I wish you a happy and successful New Year too, Harold!

      I also believe that there is value to be found in homemade food. Cooking and eating is not just about getting full and moving on. Of course, from a financial point of view, we would all be better off eating out or buying convenience food. However, the food then doesn’t nourish us in the same sense as a homemade meal would. Preparing food for others is an act of giving, appreciating, and a way of nonverbal communication. It is not a waste of time. If it brings joy to us, just like any other hobby, then it is precious and has many more benefits than working an extra hour at the office to earn 30 more dollars a day. If you look at it from the outset, chasing money (a number or piece of paper) is an activity that is worthless. It has only an imaginary value and it doesn’t nourish people or bring joy. Without things to consume (like food, travel, luxuries) money is worthless. You can’t eat, wear, or sleep on it.

      Thanks again for your kind comment, Tim

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