Why are ersatz foods ingredients so common in the US?

US isn’t a poor country. Yet typical food includes junk like corn syrup. Even in fairly expensive restaurants, imitation crab is used instead of real crab. Airlines serve absolutely foul artificial creamer instead of half-and-half or cream. Typical baked goods, even at the fancy bakeries, are so inferior to German, Swiss or Czech products that I can’t help wonder why.

Does anyone know?

It’s not like making better food is difficult. At this point, I can prepare meal ingredients in 2 to 5 minutes to rival all but the best restaurants in town, and do so with fairly inexpensive ingredients. For grocery makers, is the cost of ingredients so critical compared to the cost of packaging, distribution and advertising as to mandate the use of very inferior substitutes in mainstream food products?

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30 Responses to Why are ersatz foods ingredients so common in the US?

  1. anonymous says:

    Quesiton: “Why are ersatz foods ingredients so common in the US?”

    Answer: Profit.

  2. Ken Hagler says:

    The corn syrup instead of sugar thing is due to political corruption. Powerful sugar farmers have bribed Congress to pass protectionist legislation keeping cheap sugar from being imported, so that they can keep their prices artificially high. This is why Mexican Coke is so much better than American Coke–Mexico is less corrupt, so their bottling plants use real sugar.

    I don’t know for sure, but I assume all the other examples you gave are that way for the same reason.

    • Codisimo says:

      Did I read that correctly where you stated that Mexico was less corrupt than the United States? Are you aware that in every single survey or compilation of data about corruption, Mexico ranks far behind the United Stated when it comes to corruption and the perception of corruption? You take a marginally valid point about price protectionism and why real sugar is used so infrequently in this country and ruin it with a statement that is patently untrue.

      High fructose corn syrup replaced sugar in so many sweetness applications for two main reasons, a. The tariffs mentioned before, and b. a push from the corn producers for higher subsidies for producing excess amounts of corn.

      To answer Oleg’s question, I have four words, industrialization and lack of tradition. For all of their faults, the A.O.C., D.O.C. and geographic indications used throughout Europe have precluded the industrial bastardization of traditional foods. In order for certain products to be considered genuine, they must be produced according to the specified tradition or recipe. I think there are also a number of factors, particularly relating to artisanal products like bread and pastries that make Europe more conductive to maintaining a product of higher quality.

      Population density, has a huge impact on the discussion in question. If you compare the European countries most well known for their food here in America, Italy, France, Germany and the U.K., they all are more densely populated by a factor of 3 to 4 times. That combined with a far more urban population, I think, leads to a different perspective on food. People are more adapt to be willing to pop into the local boulangerie, patisserie or konditorei on a daily or semi daily basis if it is local, of good quality and in a convenient location, as many there are. The freshness inherent in that situation, combined with the insistence on traditional techniques and ingredients, produces a better product.

      John and Tim make some great points as well. I don’t think there is a single correct answer, it is all a combination of factors.

      One example that comes to my mind, is brought by something John mentioned, donuts. I remember when I was a kid in the 80’s, a grocery store donut was about as good as any other you could get. When you factor in the labor to produce a decent enough donut, and the number of grocery stores where I grew up, you had probably 35 decently trained bakers. Now, grocery store donuts, at least where I am now, are almost trash donuts. It definitely seems like they are using a premade, frozen dough, which takes zero skill to produce, and poor quality glazes and toppings applied haphazardly. Then I compare those donuts with places like Gourdough’s in Austin or Voodoo in Portland, and I would trade every grocery store donut I ever had in my life for a Motherclucker or Flying Pig from Gourdoughs. The same divestiture of skill has also happen at the meat counter, good luck finding a grocery store with a meat cutter, much less a full fledged butcher.

      • Timmeehh says:

        “Are you aware that in every single survey or compilation of data about corruption, Mexico ranks far behind the United Stated when it comes to corruption and the perception of corruption?”

        Who conducts the survey and compiles the data? The US government? The “unbiased” media?

        Why not let the inmates in a prison run their own parole board too?

        • Ken Hagler says:

          They probably measure corruption in terms that US politicians acknowledge as corruption, e.g. a business having to pay a bureaucrat $1,000 to file the permits they need to operate.

          Here in the US, corruption takes the form of a business paying a politician $1 million to make it illegal for any new competitors to enter the business in the first place.

          • Laws you disagree with are nevertheless laws.

            Corruption is when the laws are bypassed via criminal action and dishonesty.

            Claiming the US is more corrupt than Mexico is like claiming the US is more brutal than Nazi Germany.

            As to whom does the analysis, quite a few groups in quite a few nations.

            But if Mexico is so awesome, by all means move there.

            FYI, Mexicoke is switching to HFCS, too.

    • LarryArnold says:

      Actually Mexico is far more corrupt, but the folks who grow corn there aren’t in on the take.

  3. John Marden says:

    The US restaurant supply and food supply are built on abundance, delivery, choice and change, not focus and quality. Our local food suppliers were bought up by the big conglomerates in the Mad Men heyday of the cereal wars. Us US Citizens grew up with stuff like Wonder Bread, Skim Milk, Captain Crunch cereal, Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs, American cheese packets, Frozen dinners, Macdonald’s hamburgers….

    As much as we probably hate to admit it, GOOD food…the “Foodie” craze is fairly new to us. As such, there has been an increasing focus on local food, but the trend is only a few years old and the good regional food manufacturers are developing.

    I would guess that a restaurant chef needs to work VERY hard to get good local ingredients, which probably cost 5X more than those available from the supplier of the rest of the rest of his/her ingredients.

    The US is also very dependent on trends. That supplier also has to deal with diet fads and foodies who create both demand and derision with one Food Network episode or Today Show appearance.

    “Baked goods?” Have you ever tried to find a doughnut in Minnesota outside a Super America? Bakeries are sucking wind in the advance of the “gluten free diet”.

    The US restaurant supply is a mile wide and and inch deep. Although we quickly get deep in things that matter — like craft beer brewing. : )

    As shallow as it may be, the US food supply is WIDE. You can get any food ingredient you want, but there is probably only one choice.

    Bavarian Weisswurst rocks, but I would like to see if I can get an avocado/turkey/bacon sandwich in Munich – like I can in many US towns. With a calamari appetizer and a nice IPA – there are 6 on tap.

    The US HAD crab, coffee, coffee creamer, chocolate, beer, etc. available everywhere for years. It is only in the past few decades that we are realizing that better quality choices exist.

  4. Tim Covington says:

    A lot of the ersatz stuff has a longer shelf life and/or preservative effects that make the items more shelf stable.

    As an example, the artificial creamer that airlines use may not need to be refrigerated. Or, if it does, it will last longer in the fridge than cream or half-and-half. Throw in the fact that you still have a lot of idiots that believe that non-fat artificial creamer is better for them than cream, and you have airlines choosing to just carry the artificial stuff.

  5. billf says:

    The first two commenters are correct,also,consider that even if the producers only save a penny,if their sales are in the millions,that’s a million pennies.
    Another factor,American consumers are sheep and don’t complain enough(the frog in boiling water comes to mind).

  6. htom says:

    Most of it is cost in various, not always obvious, places. Simple baking, for example. Great flour is milled and then aged. Time and money to age it, chemical aging is faster, adds to the weight of the flour, is more predictable, most won’t notice the taste (especially since they’re used to the taste.) Butter or oil in a cake? Butter’s more expensive, needs refrigeration, more work to make into a cake. Oil’s cheaper, no refrigeration, liquid pours into the batter rather than having to cream the butter, cake has a wetter mouth feel, much longer shelf life (add a little artificial butter flavor, maybe.)

    Real food takes skill, time, ingredients, and is consumed almost immediately. Commercial food (usually) minimizes labor, time, least expensive ingredients, and has to be designed to wait for the customer.

    I was at a very expensive trendy restaurant, one of two dozen guests at a fancy do, I ordered the brook trout. It was incredibly good. As I was leaving the chef asked to talk to me. “The trout … what was wrong with it?” “Wrong? It was delicious.” “There was a look on your face …” “From the description, I had been reminded of my childhood, catching trout, frying them in butter by the side of the stream, and it was not quite that good.” “Oh. That makes me feel better. I know exactly what you mean. We can’t get fish that fresh, the texture changes within an hour. I wish we could, we’ve tried.” “Is that why some places have those huge aquariums?” “Well … that’s the image they want to give. It doesn’t work, the fish don’t get enough exercise, they don’t live on bugs, and don’t taste even as good as the one you had.” “They don’t. Didn’t. Yours was better.” “You would notice, having eaten that stream side trout. Those early food memories stick with you. You might not know how to describe how it was different, but you’d know.” “Grandma’s sourdough bread, made every day.” “Exactly.” …

    As more and more people grow up eating fake food, fake food has become the targeted taste.

  7. Lyle says:

    I’ve often wondered the same thing. I say the biggest factor is simple, mental laziness. I’ve seent he resturant shows on YV where the owner has been using something out of a can or whatnot, and the regular host of the program shows him how easy it is to make a superior product from scratch that more people will like AND can result in more profit. The owner simply hadn’t thought of it. It’s been a repeated theme.

    I grow some of my own food, hunt some of my own protien, make my own beer and cider, and my wife makes bread, and I’m often struck by the fact that so many of the commercial products can be made so badly and still sell, given the ease with which anyone can do so much better by simply caring a little bit and thinking about it.

    It’s laziness. Complacency. Lack of imagination. Those are the sins of our current American culture, and it could end up in our demise.

    All that being said; complacency goes both ways doesn’t it– There ARE some really excellent food products here. You just have to look around a bit to find them amongst all the clutter.

  8. dsd says:

    they are poisoning us.

    google agenda 21

    high fructose corn syrup is banned in europe and mexico, among other countries – why would it be banned only if it was cheaper/sweeter/longer shelf life? because it is terrible for you… your liver does not know how to break it down, creates fatty liver and other issues. yet the FDA conducts fully armed and armored swat raids on farms that sell natural unpasteurized milk.

    along with BPA and dozens of other toxins the FDA is “allowing” in the USA. your canned foods are all sitting and leaching BPA into the food contents. nearly all food is now GMO or saturated by Monsanto products. wheat of today is nothing like what from 50 years ago or earlier – read the book Wheat Belly just as a look at one small facet.

    young kids are getting diabetes at record rates, 7 year old kids are shaped like lethargic 40 year olds now. look at the cancer rates in the USA – compare to other countries as well as to the USA in the 1970s or earlier

    ever wonder why healthcare was first in the US takeover? we have limited sources for foods now (typically massive government sponsored conglomerates) and have little alternatives but to pay to be poisoned by our overlords and then we pay to try to save ourselves from the results.

  9. Bikerdad says:

    Distance and durability are two key considerations. The distance between the food source and where the food is consumed means that the food must be much more durable. This results in a lot more processing and preservatives. Also cost, most food here costs much less than it does elsewhere.

    • Rob says:

      Yeah; I grew up in Nevada, where you pretty much never got anything truly fresh in the stores, except for maybe the beef (and often not even then; while Nevada has a lot of cattle ranching, desert-raised beef doesn’t taste all that great and is often shipped off to feed lots, many of which were out-of-state, to fatten up before slaughter). The state is simply too dry to produce much in the way of food and has to import most of it. A “localvore” diet wouldn’t get very far there, unless you took to eating almost nothing but tubers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits and pine nuts like the Shoshone did. Anything shipped in usually has to come from hundreds of miles away and had to be able to deal with the heat and cold during shipping.

      On the other side of the coin, I now live in Western Oregon, where it is quite possible to be a near-complete localvore, and the food is often much fresher.

  10. jimbob86 says:

    “If you ever have to ask the “Why” of a thing, then the answer is “Power”, or “Money”, or both.”

    In this question, I’m leaning toward the “Power” direction- why else would the Dept. of Agriculture criminalize giving away home grown produce to neighbors?

  11. Gewehr98 says:

    Having eaten my way around the world several times, I question the definition of “ersatz” food ingredients.

    I would go on record stating that the balut and lutefisk I’ve eaten were considerably more “ersatz” than any amount of high fructose corn syrup in my Mountain Dew.

    • Tierlieb says:

      That might be just a language problem: “Ersatz” is German for “replacement” or “substitute”, with the Americanised version implying a lower quality, which is not inherent in the German one.

      Lutefisk and balut are acquired tastes with relatively small markets even in their respective home countries. They also require very few ingredients. So they are quite far away from having any ingredient replaced, both from a economic and a culinary perspective.

      • Earl says:

        Lutefisk is very much your definition of Ersatz.

        They replace all the edible material with inedible material!

  12. Mike OTDP says:

    I think it goes a lot deeper than people suspect.

    Americans have attitudes toward food that were shaped by the Great Depression and the Second World War. We’re steeped in the idea that we MUST get as many calories for the dollar as possible.

    The problem is, Oleg is right. The United States is a wealthy country. We can afford to eat better than we do…and eating better would probably result in eating a bit less.

  13. NotClauswitz says:

    I was an Anthro major not an Econ/Biz major, but I thought the problem with high fructose corn syrup and it ubiquitousness was due to Farm Subsidies (including asphalt farmers in Manhattan and San Francisco) for corn have arrive at a depressed pinnacle of price-point – that is, it’s so damn cheap (and salt too) that FoodFactories manufacturing prepared Protein-Vegetable Condensate can’t afford to NOT use it. Actual sugar costs more and we don’t make it cheaply in Hawaii anymore (another story of Democrat-run plantations), so HFCS is used everywhere a sweetener is required or even considered.
    If the Midwestern FoodConglomerates made Lutefisk it would have corn sweetener in it, and a lot of salt to “balance” the sweet taste.

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