The world spends about $374 billion each year on snack foods — and it's not all just a bunch of empty calories. You can often learn a surprising amount about a country by its junk food, whether it's Russia's red caviar potato chips or Britain's Cadbury Creme Egg McFlurry. So here's a rundown of some of the most distinctive snacks across the globe and what they tell us about how the world works.
Mexican Coke tastes better because of trade policy
Soda lovers have long argued that Mexican Coca-Cola is better than America's — because Mexican Coke uses real cane sugar, while American coke is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It happened thanks to key economic policies: The US government has long subsidized corn and had put up tariffs on cane sugar imports. Now, however, free trade may be shaking up the Coke bottle. Since the advent of NAFTA in 1994, subsidized American corn has been flooding into Mexico, and some critics charge that inferior HFCS is creeping into their beloved Mexican Coke.
Canadians think American Hershey bars taste like vomit
Sometimes snack companies have to vary their products from country to country to accommodate local preferences. The chocolate Hershey bar actually tastes a bit different in Canada than it does in the United States. In the US, the bars go through a process called controlled lipolysis, giving the snack a tangy, slightly sour flavor (it's due to butyric acid). The problem is that both Europeans and Canadians think butyric acid tastes like vomit (possibly because they're more accustomed to darker chocolate). So Hershey had to modify their recipe to fit the European — and Canadian — palate.
Fritos: the ultimate American snack
Fritos might not be America's most popular chip (that honor goes to Lay's), but it might have the most all-American backstory. Charles Doolin invented Fritos in San Antonio in the 1930s, modeling them after a Mexican beach food made from fried corn. He kept tinkering with the Fritos recipe — even using a hybridized variety of corn he developed — until he'd created a business empire. It's all there: the melting pot, entrepreneurialism, and engineered corn. Maybe Frito pie should be the new national dish.
Zambo Chips reflect Honduras's dark history
Not all snacks have such an uplifting backstory. Zambos are the most popular chips in Honduras. They also have an ugly history. The name itself is arguably a racist term to describe mixed-race people. And the company that makes Zambos, the Dinant Corporation, is often at the center of controversy. Depending on whom you believe, its owner, Miguel Facussé, may have been at the center of the violent Honduran coup in 2009. Critics have accused the firm of engaging in violence, theft, and corruption. The story is reminiscent of United Fruit's famously sordid past in Central America.
Chile's Tika Chips are spiced with indigenous flavors
A number of foods in Latin America put a European twist on indigenous cuisine, reflecting the continent's long history with colonialism. Chile's popular Tika Chips, for instance, use merken, a smoked chili pepper common in Mapuche cuisine (the Mapuche live in the southern Patagonia region). The chips have become a heavily marketed hit throughout the country, but they also obscure some underlying political tensions. Back in 1993, Chile passed a law to return land to the Mapuche people, but the process has been racked by land seizures and violence.
McDonald's makes delicious banana pies for Brazil
Bananas are hugely popular in Brazil — about as popular as apples are in American culture. (Brazil isn't the world's largest banana producer, but it exports very little of what it does grow, which means it has an extremely high consumption rate.) That explains why McDonald's offers a banana pie as one of its local dessert menu items. They know their audience.
Ouma Rusks, brought to you by South Africa's government
It's rare that a country's government can help create a hit snack — but South Africa is a notable exception. Ouma Rusks are a biscuit that goes back to 1939, when an Eastern Cape resident named Ouma Greyvensteyn first made them. Her company survived thanks to support from the state-run International Development Corporation (its parent company, RCL Foods, is private today). That unexpected lineage isn't a coincidence: The OECD notes that even today much of South Africa's economy remains dependent on state-owned enterprise.
Nigeria is a major cocoa exporter, but its favorite candy is minty
Nigeria is the world's fourth-largest producer of cocoa beans, so you'd think its most popular snack would involve chocolate. Surprisingly, that's not the case. When Cadbury arrived in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn't chiefly interested in finding a new markets for its chocolate — it was interested in sourcing cocoa beans for export. While the company did sell a few snacks domestically, it was TomToms — a sugar candy with a strong dose of menthol — that ended up becoming the best-selling hit.
Party with Saudia Arabia's popular nonalcoholic beer
In the Middle East, nonalcoholic beer is vastly more popular than it is in the West, due to the Muslim prohibition of alcohol in places like Saudi Arabia. Barbican is a popular halal nonalcoholic beer available throughout the Middle East. It began in Saudi Arabia in 1983 and is a companion to the popular Rani drink (which proudly includes real fruit pieces) and Vimto, a nonalcoholic cordial. There are plenty of Western brands, like Coke, that have made inroads in Saudi Arabia. But the beer market is a different thing entirely.
In North Korea, Choco Pies are subversive
In 2002, North Korea opened the Kaesong Industrial Complex — the one place where South Korean companies could come in and hire workers from the north. Those firms often handed out Choco Pies as bonuses to workers. The treat, two chocolate halves around marshmallow, became hugely popular in North Korea, and a large black market for them emerged. That's why in 2014 the totalitarian North Korean government decided to ban the snack. North Korea was worried Choco Pies might have a subversive impact, and South Koreans responded by sending balloons carrying the sweet sandwich across the border.
China's Oreos are shaped like tubes
The Oreo tube is a cream-filled lesson about how Western companies have to enter Chinese markets with a respect for the country's often unique preferences. Not even the Oreo is sacred. When Kraft Foods (now Mondelez) tried to bring the iconic cookie to China in 1996, it found that Chinese consumers didn't respond to the classic taste. Kraft was forced to rework the ratio of cookie and cream into a straw-like structure that is almost unrecognizable to its American fans.
Japan has 200 insane KitKat flavors
KitKats are ludicrously popular in Japan. There's a KitKat boutique and more than 200 flavors, including red bean toast, soy sauce, blueberry fromage, and many others. Why so many? Some manufacturers say the country's unique retail system deserves credit. Because there are more than 40,000 retail stores competing for customers, manufacturers create many new, limited-edition products to grab the shelf space necessary to drive sales.
India fended off multinationals with Bingo Chips
When Bingo Chips launched in India in 2007, the company had a steep hill to climb against foreign competition — Lay's Kurkure chips were the market leader. But Bingo has done astonishingly well. The maker of the chips, ITC Limited, used its extensive local distribution network — originally created to sell cigarettes — to get Bingo Chips to customers. Locally sensitive ad campaigns and competitive pricing helped India's homegrown chip beat the bigger players in the market. It's a lesson in how local upstarts can beat massive multinationals, if they're smart.
Thailand is obsessed with fried seaweed
Seaweed isn't an especially popular snack in the West. But it's a multibillion-dollar market around the world — with most of the consumption and production in Asia. In Thailand, Tao Kae Noi dominates the snack market with its delicious fried seaweed fare. The company is led by the 30-year-old Aitthipat Kulapongvanich, a local tycoon and billionaire who is now the subject of his own movie. That's right — Asia's Mark Zuckerberg is a seaweed titan.
Finland's revolting Salmiakki connects it to Scandinavia
Finland is pointedly not part of Scandinavia — its language is radically different, and in many ways it has a distinct culture. But Finland has managed to forge a bond with its fellow Nordic countries over Salmiakki, a salty licorice flavored with ammonium chloride. Most people around the world find this popular Finnish snack revolting, but it has found fans in Denmark and Norway.
French McDonald's finds success by getting classy
France, which is famously proud of its homegrown cuisine, has long had a rocky relationship with McDonald's. When the company first tried to enter France in 1972, it was rejected outright. In the 1990s, the issue came to a head when France saw a national protest movement against the golden arches. Which makes it shocking that, today, France is the second-most profitable McDonald's market after the United States. How did it happen? McDonald's started offering locally sourced versions of French foods — like the Mandise, a delicate sponge cake with chocolate and hazelnut. The company even toned down the golden arches to make them a more tasteful green.
Romania's top candy is ... healthy?
The most popular candy in Romania isn't marketed as a conventional sweet. It's Orbit gum, which sells widely in Eastern Europe because it's marketed as the best way for people to freshen their breath and care for their teeth. The gum's ad campaigns and Facebook page heavily emphasize oral health as a key reason for buying gum — a marketing tactic that's used in Russia and Poland, as well.
Ireland's two Taytos Chips split the island
The island of Ireland is famously split between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — and this contentious fact is even reflected in the country's potato chips. In the Republic of Ireland, Joe Murphy began making Tayto Chips in 1954. The chips caught on, but the company didn't think it was a good idea to simply expand into Northern Ireland. So instead, Tayto licensed the brand to a local manufacturer in the north — and in 1956, Thomas Hutchinson began making his own version of Tayto chips. Same name, different countries. It's not exactly a Protestant-Catholic split, but the fact that there are two distinct versions of the same chip is emblematic of those fissures.
Spain snacks on Filipinos cookies
Spain ruled over the Philippines for more than three centuries, from 1521 to 1898, and the colonial ties are still a strong memory for both countries (about 3 million people in the Philippines still speak Spanish). Which explains why Spain now has a snack called Filipinos, a chocolate-coated cookie. The snacks sparked protests in the Philippines, with some critics arguing that the name is a racist jokes (similar to "Oreos" in the United States, the joke posits that Filipinos are white on the inside, brown on the outside). Defenders say the name comes from the Philippine Rosquillo cookie. Whatever the truth, the cookies speak to the long history between the two countries.
New Zealand has a chocolatey colloquialism
If you visit New Zealand, you might hear the suggestion that someone be "given a chocolate fish." The phrase — akin to a "pat on the back" — is common because of a beloved New Zealand snack. Chocolate fish — fish-shaped chocolate surrounding pink or white marshmallow — are both homemade and mass-produced by companies like Cadbury. Next time a kiwi tells you that you've done a good job, you'll know just why the compliment was so sweet.
Australia's lonely, but everlasting, love of Vegemite
Why did Australia ever embrace Vegemite, one of the strangest of all snacks? Blame (or thank) the country's isolation. The yeast spread was invented after World War I disrupted marmite imports from far-flung England to Australia. Vegemite stuck around after the war and then got another boost during World War II, when the Australian army bought supplies as a nutritious food for the troops. Think of it like Spam — an odd food born of necessity and isolation — although, in Australians' case, they've stuck with it. Even today, Australians buy 22 million jars of Vegemite each year.
Africa and the Middle East
- Editor: Brad Plumer
- Developer: Yuri Victor