Why American Chocolate Tastes Like Garbage

Sometimes, freedom tastes like wax.
Why American Chocolate Tastes Like Garbage

Everyone loves candy, and we're no different. So this week, Cracked is giving in to our sweet tooth and talking about all things candy.

In case you didn't know, the entire rest of the world mocks American chocolate as pukey, powdery, waxy garbage, and they're completely right to do so. Until you've experienced the rich, creamy taste of European chocolate, you're basically a little chocolate baby, totally unaware of the world of steak and lobster as you shovel pea slurry into your maw. How did this happen? We're supposed to be the greatest country on earth—why can't we get something we love as much as chocolate right? There's a few reasons.

Blame Hershey

It might seem like a cop-out to point fingers at any one chocolate company just because it's the biggest, but it really is impossible to talk about American chocolate without heading up the Hershey highway. You might think of the company as the McDonald's of chocolate, but it's more like the Disney, requiring its own town the size of small cities all over America to support its confectionery endeavors. It's also responsible for literally inventing and popularizing American chocolate.

Before Milton Hershey decided to sell his caramel company and focus on chocolate, around the dawn of the 20th century, it wasn't possible to buy a bunch of novelty merchandise proclaiming one to be a chocoholic because chocolate just wasn't that available, at least not in a remotely edible form. The use of milk and other perishable ingredients meant that you could really only get it if you lived where it was produced and ate it immediately, and even then, only if it wasn't too hot outside.

Chocolate wrapper, 1903

Hershey Company

We're lucky they didn't solve this by making it with Coca-Cola instead of milk. 

Hershey was determined to democratize chocolate, working tirelessly to identify a formula for preserving the candy so it could be manufactured in abundance and shipped across large distances. He and his team succeeded, but not without trade-offs. The Hershey Company is understandably tight-lipped about the details of their process, but chocolate experts are convinced that Old Man Hershey decided to put the milk for his chocolate through a process called lipolysis, which essentially preemptively spoils it. 

The miracle of the process is that the milk remains safe for consumption and won't spoil further, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of producing butyric acid, the substance that makes rancid butter, parmesan cheese, and human vomit all smell alike. That's the reason why American chocolate has a slightly sour, pukey taste—at least to people who aren't used to it.

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Americans Hate Change

Basically, in the grand American tradition, in order for everybody to have something, we had to ruin it just a little. But chocolate technology has changed a lot over the last century, as evidenced by the fact that Europeans don't have to line up outside their local chocolatier in the dead of winter like some kind of candy dystopia. Why stick to an outdated process that objectively results in a worse product? An even more American reason: the rabid fear and loathing of change.

Think about it. Every time there's a New Coke, there's a virulent backlash. The company presumably put the product through a battery of taste tests to ensure it was truly superior, but because it doesn't taste "the same," a new formula can be the death of a business. By the time new preservation methods were available, "vomit" was simply the taste of American chocolate. 

jelly beans

Patrick Fore/Unsplash

There's a joke in Harry Potter about vomit-flavored jelly beans.
Americans read it and think, "Chocolate-flavored? What's wrong with that?"

It was what people grew up with, and if you've ever seen a Facebook meme group, you know that things being different from what people grew up with should be punishable by death. Hershey was understandably reluctant to change their formula, and we've obviously proved we're willing to put up with trash candy as long as it isn't even slightly different from what we expect. Low expectations is just the American way.

American Regulations Are More Lenient

Also the American way? Not telling anyone what to do with their business even if it sucks. European and American regulations on exactly what a product must contain and how much in order to call itself chocolate are so wildly different that they result in fundamentally different foods. The biggest one is cocoa: European milk chocolate must be at least 30% cocoa, but in the U.S., it can be as low as 10%. The difference is often made up with a lot of sugar, which is why the rest of the world thinks American chocolate is as sickly as its populace.

Cocoa Krispies

Amin/Wiki Commons

Calling it chocolate is like calling Cocoa Krispies chocolate. 

European chocolate is also required to be at least 14% dry milk solids and 3.5% milk fats, whereas the U.S. requires only 12% and 3.39%, respectively. It might seem like a small difference, but it makes European chocolate creamier, and the difference is especially noticeable when a U.S. manufacturer tries to make up the difference with vegetable oil, which is responsible for the waxy texture some American chocolate has. Some chocolate—including certain products made by Hershey—can't even legally call themselves milk chocolate because they've replaced all of the cocoa butter with vegetable oils. They can sell them, of course, but they have to be labeled "chocolate candy," "made with chocolate," etc. Sometimes, freedom tastes like wax.

Hershey Controls More Than You Think

Okay, but just because one admittedly giant company decided to make trash chocolate, why does that mean all American chocolate sucks? Believe it or not, Hershey is so protective of its formula because American chocolate companies largely seek to emulate the Hershey taste, even long after better preservation methods became available. It all comes back to the invasive reach of Hershey's infinitely long and oily fingers and the sad business truth that "better" doesn't always mean "most popular." For whatever reason, most Americans want their chocolate to taste like Hershey. Call it a familiarity bias, ignorance of better options, or a genuine cultural difference, but it's a bleak truth with which every aspiring Willy Wonka must contend.

Incidentally, Willy Wonka is owned by Nestle, which brings us to the larger problem of even finding chocolate that wasn't produced by a handful of corporate behemoths determined to achieve the lowest common denominator. Hershey owns a huge swath of the candy aisle, from Twizzlers to Bubble Yum, and they've spent most of the 21st century acquiring every mom and pop chocolatier they can, so even if you take the chance that a given company isn't trying to ape the wax-burp Hershey formula, it may in fact be a Hershey product. 

Reese's with pieces


Hershey even owns the good candy, Reese's, which is nuts. 

Untold numbers of European expats must have been overjoyed to find a Dairy Milk bar in a hole-in-the-wall bodega only to be violently disappointed by their first bite into it because even if you find a product supposedly made by Cadbury, a leading European chocolate brand, it won't be the Cadbury you get in Europe. That's right: Hershey's owns Cadbury in America. Hershey's is everywhere. As we say in the home of the brave, tolerate it or be a huge bummer on Halloween.

Top image: Evan-Amos/Wiki Commons

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