Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A question of taste

Ever since I started going to Martha’s Backyard, the Auckland store that sells imported American products (especially junk food), I’ve been puzzled about the taste of those products, how they sometimes differ so much from what I remember. I even wrote a post about some of those differences.

Since then, I’ve thought that in some cases the formulations or manufacturing processes may have changed, or maybe I just don’t remember them correctly. Either or both may be true in some cases, but I’ve come to think that the reason for the disconnect is that I’ve changed, and New Zealand is a big part of that.

Our tastes change over time. For example, as a child we may have liked some sickly-sweet soft drink that we now find repulsive. Or, we’ve grown to love something we once thought disgusting, like coffee or dark chocolate. Okay, maybe those examples say more about me, but you get the point.

I arrived in New Zealand with my 1995 American tastes and found that I couldn’t get many of the food products I was used to. As any expat would do, I adapted, using local equivalents or just forgetting about things I once took for granted. In either case, I became used to New Zealand products and tastes that are very different from those in America.

For example, soft drinks in New Zealand have sugar, not high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—and that includes locally-made American brands. In fact, you’d have to look hard to find products with HFCS in them. Sugar starts out cheaper, and corn isn’t subsidised here as it is in the US. In general, NZ-made food products are less sweet or fatty than American products (of course there are exceptions). But they also tend to be far less processed, with the fully- or nearly fully-prepared, packaged meals far less common here.

The difference with HFCS may be mainly one of cost, but much of the rest can be accounted for by the fact that New Zealand is a small country and it takes maybe a day for a product to get from factory to store (or distribution centre, at least). In the US, a product can take days or weeks to reach grocery store shelves. Preservatives and other additives make that practical in the US.

Kiwis, for all the media worry about the declining rate of consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, appear to me to cook more and from generally fresher ingredients than do Americans. I know that our own meals never come from a packet merely needing to be heated up (although, we do probably eat too many takeaway meals).

My point is that I’ve grown used to fresher products, and I don’t like the taste of processed food anymore. I also don’t like things as sweet as I used to. All of which explains, at least in part, why the taste of the American products is so jarring to me.

Finally on the subject of taste, a local food manufacturer is now producing Doritos here in NZ. As part of my second haul at Martha’s, I bought a little snack pack of the “Nacho Cheese” flavour of the American original. The NZ version of that flavour tastes nothing like the American but, in fact, tastes a bit like nachos with cheese—imagine that!—complete with a hint of salsa taste. The NZ flavour called “Cheese Supreme” tastes like the American “Nacho Cheese”. That’s just one small indication of how New Zealand tastes really are different.

I suppose the fact that I’m so interested in junk food probably speaks volumes about my own tastes—or lack thereof.


d said...

I know exactly what you mean - we've only been here 3 1/2 years, but we can easily taste the difference between NZ and US foods. While I've enjoyed much of what we purchased from Martha's backyard, a lot of the US snack foods are...well, gross.

Will have to get Darren to check out the Dorito's that are made here, though. Should be interesting!

Arthur Schenck said...

Speaking of gross, one of the things I bought at Martha's was Kraft Macaroni % Cheese. I had it—or the cheaper equivalents—all the time when I was at university (I remember distinctly that back then the Kroger brand was 19¢ each). The "cheese" powder's taste was vaguely nostalgic, BUT: The cooked pasta was gray and very unappealing-looking. The "cheese" sauce was that fake bright orange colour that so much American cheese is. It was something I pretty much endured more than enjoyed.

So, there are many things that just aren't as good to me now as I remember them being. You know what? I think this is for the best!