A year ago, I wrote a brief post on British and American pharmacies as allegories for our food-sickcare industrial complex. Since then, the post sparked a number of interesting conversations with friends. A recurring theme throughout those conversations was a question many of us thought of, but which none of us had a good answer for.
Why is that in the US and in the UK, purveyors of foods seem to engineer their foods for maximum addictiveness, at the expense of their customer's health, much more so than seems to be the case in continental Europe?
A few of the most ubiquitous examples would be sweets, portion sizes, and "super-processed" foods including sugar.
1) Sweets. In most Swiss, French, or Czech grocery stores, you can find a salty chocolate bar, a caramel chocolate bar, and an almond chocolate bar. But you cannot find the most addictive version of said product, at least for some people - say a double caramel salty almond fudge chocolate bar. In most American or British supermarkets, you'll find something like that though. Same thing goes for ice cream.
2) Portion sizes. Although there has been some size creep, the X-Large drink size available in most continental cinemas (if they even have an X-Large!) is still equivalent to somewhere between an American Medium or Large, i.e. 1.5 sizes off (and probably half the volume).
3) Super-processed foods & sugar. Europe gets its fair share of processed foods, but it seems to do generally better on what I'd call "super-processed foods": corn syrup, chips made from potatoes or grains processed to a degree where you can't tell which of the two they started with, flavors that don't even attempt to replicate some food group that exists in nature, etc. I'd include sugar in this bracket - continental countries love their pastries, but they generally don't jam sugar into other foods groups with the same ferocity that food producers seem to do in the UK and in the US.
Why could this be happening? There are a few tempting explanations that come up, though I'm not sure any one of them, or even all of these combined, explain this properly.
1) Regulation - European food regulators are just stricter, and they ban or heavily regulate more of the bad stuff.
2) Cultural norms - more of the people who run European food companies have some kind of cultural bias against producing this kind of stuff, and so it doesn't get as extreme. This would not explain why American food brands don't just supply this part of the European market instead though.
3) Timing - Europe is just behind the US in adopting the "fruits" of late-stage capitalism. Give it 10 years, and Europeans will have caught up to the delight of buying a gallon-sized containers of salty caramel fudge almond crunch ice cream.
4) Local tastes - maybe it's hard to develop a taste for some of the more extreme flavors later in life, so this stuff wouldn't sell in Europe. Counter-example: many Europeans who come to the US readily admit that they got used to and started liking some of these flavors within a year or two.
5) Shareholder pressure - although this has been changing, management of European companies still seems to be subject to less pressure from investors to deliver returns at any cost. If your investors are forcing you to grow earnings in a mature market for snacks, generally speaking, the answer will be "Let's add more sugar."
I'm sure that some of these factors go part way towards an explanation, but I feel like there is more going on here. If you're reading this and have other factors to add to the list, I'd be curious to hear them.