Sunday, March 13, 2011

America the Sweet

On our recent trip to the US, my wife and I found America very sweet.  By that, I don’t mean to say the people were friendly and helpful, which they were, almost to a fault, but that many things were, literally, sweet.  The beer, the bread, the baked beans and even the candy were all tinged with a sweetness that made them cloying.

But the Americans, being a resourceful lot, didn’t stop there; if a food item wasn’t sugar-based, it was cover in salt or swirling with cinnamon, or a combination thereof.  And there was a lot of it: in a supermarket with 12 aisles, four were devoted to snack food and those devoted to “real” food contained items like toaster pastries and microwave pizza.  My wife, who just wanted something plain, unflavored and not containing 80,000 calories, searched in vain for rice cakes among the four aisles of offerings.  She did find rice cakes, but they were either infused with cinnamon or coated with a cheese-flavored dust of a color not found in nature.

One of the four snack aisles--one third of the entire store.

Another shock was going to the drugs aisle for some aspirin and finding, readily available on the shelves, drugs that can only be obtained by prescription in the UK—anxiety medications, fat blockers, diet pills, high-strength pain relievers, etc.  This, coupled with the endless TV ads urging patients to demand specific prescription drugs from their doctors, led us to believe that the average American feels more adept at deciding what is good for them, medically, than is, perhaps, good for them.  Maybe my years in the UK have tainted my perception, but I like to leave decisions concerning serious medications up to my doctor.

At one point during the holiday, we bought a pack of Whoppers, just to see how they compare to Malteasers, the UK version of Whoopers.  They were, in word, awful.  The coating was, apparently, some sort of substance grown in a petri dish from industrial waste products that, I assume, was supposed to resemble chocolate in look, texture and taste.  They managed one out of three: the color was brownish, but it had the texture of an inner tube and a taste not far away.  And the center was so sickeningly sweet—not the malty flavor I have grown used to—that after three I considered going back to the drug aisle to get some Kaopectate.

Who thought this was a good idea?  Candy in the shape of Legos!

We also managed to confuse the check out team (really, three people on a register?) by trying to pack our own groceries and caused the staff at a Dunkin Donuts to retreat into a befuddled huddle by asking for coffee without sugar in it.

On the plus side, the service was refreshingly prompt and cordial.  At a diner we visited, a lone waitress was taking orders, bringing food, checking on coffee levels and fetching the check for all the customers.  Even so, the food was well-prepared, hot and on time and she always managed to linger for a few friendly words at each table.  In the UK, where they have eight teenagers behind the counter filling orders, it still takes half an hour to get a cup of coffee.

This is SALAD!  Isn't this supposed to be healthy and low in calories?

 So America gets mixed marks this trip: too much sugar, too many drugs but great service and really good coffee.  Overall, my years in England have made me unable to cope with the high condiment content of American food; I won’t say I was glad to return to Sussex, but my stomach certainly was.

Hey, look what I found at the local bookshop!


  1. Hmmm a very interesting article Mike, and of course, so accurate too. It is 5 years since Paula and I have been to the States (going again this May) but even then we remarked on the way almost all supermarket foods were overburdened with cinnamon - I mean c'mon, cinnamon toothpaste??? and the lack of lamb as a main meat product, what's with that? I'm looking forward to going there again, but am very unsure of some of the things I may end up getting placed in front of me. I notice that some of our supermarkets (step forward Morrisons) are even following the US example of spraying the fresh produce with water to give the impression of immediate freshness. I wonder if anyone is fooled by this?

  2. Anonymous5:40 PM

    Know whatcha mean. Ahhh Malteasers (and Flakes and Turkish Delight and Crunchies and, and, and …..) After 25 years in the US still never could bring myself to eat Hershey’s Chocolate – always reminded me of the cheap chocolate on sale 50 or 60 years ago at the local high street Woolworths -- tastes nothing like chocolate and grainy to boot. Give me Cadbury’s or give me nothing (obviously, over the years I lost a considerable amount of weight cos even the Cadbury’s they sell in the US is totally different to British Cadbury’s. Consequently, whenever I returned to the UK I would stock up at the airport duty free on those mega-sized bars of Cadbury’s).

    And what is THAT – Hallmark are now making candy – Building Blocks, Saucers!! Do they taste the same as the thin cardboard/thick paper they manufacture their cards out of, only with the addition of much sugar and cinnamon flavour??

    Now, living in Panama, Salads Rule!! Fresh produce grown all around us, at amazingly low prices (cucumbers 10c each, tomatoes 50c a pound, a sack of oranges for $4, mangos in season at 10c each, bananas 4 for 25c). But then again I eat so much salad at one time that I am still putting on weight – healthy yes, but those darned, new fangled, delicious dressings are a killer!!
    Have a Gud 'Un

  3. All so true Mike, I'm afraid. I have been in the U.S. now for nearly three months and I can't wait to get back to England for some ordinary food. Like you, I don't want sugar in bread, beer etc. etc. It tastes so funny! Why do they smother chips with salt? so bad for us.
    I love lots of things about the U.S. but food is not one of them.

  4. Breakfast food surprised me last time I was home - a ham & cheese omelet that was loaded with salt, and some sausage patties just oozing grease. These used to be some of my favourite things, but I can't tolerate the taste any longer.

  5. Sugar, preservatives, sweets & snacks. All 100% American. You know something's wrong when Big Red gum is red in America but white in Germany. Personally, I prefer my gum without the red food dye.

  6. I noticed that after a six months absence from the states some of my favourite things: sweets, chips, etc. were too sweet or salty for me. I don't miss the portion sizes, that's for certain.

  7. Steve: that “spraying water on the veggies” thing never fooled me, and it was highly annoying when I got an unwanted shower reaching for the bok choy.

    Marion: we knew better than to try the US chocolate while we were there. I wasn’t expecting miracles when I did the Whooper/Malteser experiment, but the results were more shocking than I had imagined.

    Star: it was the beer that surprised me. Sweet beer? I’m too used to the British Bitter.

    Suzer: at least your ham and cheese omelet was only loaded with salt and not cinnamon ;)

    Chantal: in the US, if you don’t want chemicals in your food you have to eat, well, nothing. I’m sure there are a lot of chemicals in food over here, too, but there is undeniably less of it. Your white Big Red Gum is proof.

    ‘Cross the Pond: the portions! I ordered a slice of cheesecake at one restaurant we went to and the thing was huge! I could have shared it with all four of us and felt I’d had enough. Good thing I didn’t order it with strawberry topping ;)

    Note to self: don't let the comments pile up before you respond to them!

  8. Try going to a coffee shop like Starbuck or Dunkin Donuts and ordering a muffin or scone. They are now all topped with sugar or frosting! Even at Trader Joe's, where I used to buy my scones, replaced the old traditional scones with the sugar-topped variety.