As any American knowing or living with Brits has heard, American chocolate is the absolute worst. Apparently, it even tastes like vomit or earwax to some (Severson, New York Times; 11 July 2007). One British friend of mine even stated that he would rather eat no chocolate at all than to suffer through an American bar (Tasting, 4/29/16). It should be noted that these comments are mostly relegated towards “everyday” chocolate, like a Hershey’s bar, and not the higher quality or fine chocolates. Yet, the importance of these beliefs about taste cannot be overstated. There is likely a real flavor difference in the American Hershey’s and British Cadburys’ milk chocolate bars, although not the ones that people usually claim; this difference has its roots in the chocolate giants’ respective histories during World War II.
It is easy to remain unconvinced about the differences between the two chocolates; in fact, one may try to understand the British opinion as residual snobbery from the empire/colony dynamic. I, myself, having eaten more than my fair share of Hershey’s, cannot fully fathom the reason for this antagonism. Yet, many news sources are quick to proclaim the strong differences in taste between the two chocolates (Spector, Business Insider; 27 January 2015). Thus, I gathered five chocolate-loving friends, three American and two British, for an informal blind tasting to see if the difference really was as marked as the Brits claim.
The tasting consisted of two types of chocolate: Hershey’s and British-made Cadbury milk chocolate bars. Thankfully, one of the British tasters graciously supplied the Cadbury from home; Cadbury in the United States is made by Hershey’s and is consequently said to taste American (Severson, New York Times; 11 July 2007). The purpose of the tasting was three fold: first, to see whether the bars do taste differently; second, to see if the Brits and Americans could accurately label the bars after tasting; and third, to see if there were any strong trends in preference for a certain bar. In order to make the tasters more uncertain, I gave them three pieces of chocolate to taste; some got two Hershey’s and one Cadbury and the others got two Cadbury and one Hershey’s. They did not know which they had eaten until after they rated them.
The results were perhaps fairly unsurprising. All five participants could tell which piece of chocolate they were given was the unique piece (either the one Cadbury or one Hershey’s of the three pieces), with four out of five correctly identifying the brand. The interesting results came when regarding preference. The British distinctly preferred Cadbury’s, while the Americans generally liked both, with a slight preference for Hershey’s. Though a rather informal study with few participants, this blind tasting does lead credence to the idea that there is a noticeable difference in the taste between the two bars. The idea of superiority of one bar over the other was not as founded.
Armed with the knowledge that Cadbury and Hershey’s do taste differently, one now must consider the question of why. As any chocolate maker or chocolatier could tell you, this could be for a plethora of reasons. Differences in the ingredients – types of beans, cacao content, milk, sugar, flavors added (like vanilla), emulsifiers, etc. – and the various steps in the chocolate making process – fermentation, roasting, milling, conching, etc. – all can have profound effects on the taste of the final chocolate product (Prescilla, 2001; 117-126). In this way, one can end up with two very different chocolates even if just a few of these factors differ.
It is possible to eliminate many factors, however. Large companies, like Cadbury and Hershey’s, often do not reveal the origin of the cacao beans they use; though, we do know that most comes from West Africa. The companies claim they do this so they can rotate through beans depending on availability without having to design new packaging each time (Prescilla, 2001; 117-118). Thus, since the beans are varied (and both companies likely buy from the same places) and no one complains that certain batches are better than others, it can be arguably said that the origin of the beans are not the deciding factor.
The next logical step to check is the ingredients list of both bars. A quick examination reveals two glaring differences; the milk/sugar content and the type of emulsifier used. Companies are obligated to list ingredients in descending order by weight. In the Hershey’s bar, sugar is listed as the main ingredient over milk, while milk appears to be of a higher content than sugar in Cadbury’s. Problem solved; that is why Brits sometimes claim Hershey’s is too sweet, right? Actually, no – they are almost exactly the same. In the US, milk is weighed by its evaporated form, while in the UK it is measured by its heavier, liquid form (Metz, BBC; 18 March 2015). Thus, while it may appear that there is more sugar in the American bars, it is actually not the case. Examine the nutrition information below; after converting serving sizes, one realizes that they are both 56g of sugar per 100g.
As for the emulsifiers, it appears that they are not the source of the differences either. The Hershey’s bar uses soy lecithin and PGPR, while the Cadbury version uses E442 and E476. PGPR and E476 are actually the same thing (Metz, BBC; 18 March 2015). However, soy lecithin and E442 are different. Yet, their role in the chocolate bar is the same – they are both popular emulsifiers. Chefs and chemists use them for their similar abilities to thicken a liquid, even in just very small amounts that do not affect taste. Thus, it doesn’t appear that these ingredients are the cause either.
According to Lawrence Allen, a former executive at Hershey’s and Nestle, the three main factors that affect the taste are the amount of cocoa, how long the chocolate is mixed, and the flavor of the milk (Metz, BBC; 18 March 2015). Again, not all these factors are as important as they seem. Allen notes that, like for the milk measurements, the US and UK measure the cocoa content differently. “The US requirement for 10% cocoa refers only to non-fat cocoa powder. The overall amount of cocoa, including cocoa butter, will be higher. In the EU, meanwhile, the requirement for chocolate to contain 30% cocoa refers to both cocoa powder and cocoa butter, so the percentage of cocoa powder alone will be lower” (Metz, BBC; 18 March 2015). Furthermore, both companies likely mix for similar, short periods of time, as they are both mass-marketed bars, not luxury. As such, the bars do not significantly differ in cocoa content or mixing.
While Allen quickly dismisses the first two, he acknowledges that the milk may be the key factor. Interestingly, both companies highly value the milk that goes into their chocolate. Hershey’s proudly used to claim that all milk used was from their own dairy farm (Coe & Coe, 1996; 251); Cadbury still advertises that a glass and a half of milk are in every pound of their milk chocolate (Cadbury Milk Ads, see below). However, Hershey’s milk undergoes a secret process, largely speculated to be lipolysis, a process by which the fatty acids in the milk begin to break down (Moskin, New York Times; 12 February 2008). This process allows for a longer shelf life, but also creates butyric acid – a compound that is found in vomit and parmesan cheese. In other words, this process is likely what gives Hershey’s chocolate that “tangy” taste the British hate but Americans are accustomed to. In partially souring the milk, Hershey’s gained a greater shelf life but created a fairly distinct taste.
With this information, it seems reasonable that a large part of the difference in taste is due to the process of adding the milk. With modern mass producing, it almost seems logical that Hershey’s would opt for a process that extended the lifespan of its chocolate. In fact, it almost seems illogical that Cadbury did not. It is important to look to the two companies’ history with mass production in their respective countries. American chocolate tradition evolved differently than it did in Europe, as American chocolate has had the stronger history of mass-marketing (Metz, BBC; 18 March 2015). This can be seen from the inception of the Hershey’s company.
In the late 1800 and early 1900s, the United States led the way in mass production and cost cutting techniques (Coe & Coe, 1996; 241). Hershey, considered the Henry Ford of chocolate, perfected his milk chocolate method in 1900 and began selling bars. The process used fresh milk which could not be legally stored for longer than 72 hours, so he likely created the lipolysis method in order to combat this (Moskin, New York Times; 12 February 2008). This allowed for his bars to be stored longer and therefore be cheaper, likely leading to a rise in their popularity. As the process was kept a secret, Cadbury could not adopt this method when they created a milk chocolate bar in 1905.
It is important to note that just because Hershey’s made its bar this way with large success, it was not the only American chocolate company. Americans would have been exposed to other companies’ chocolates with a much more “British” flavor. So then, how did the Hershey’s process milk chocolate become the standard in the US? The answer lies in the role of Hershey’s during World War II. Both companies dedicated many resources to the war effort. Cadbury offered up some of its factory to make airplane parts, while Hershey’s received a contract to make military D-rations for the army (Ration D Bars; Hershey Community Achieves). This introduced Hershey’s to hundreds of thousands of American men, importantly at a time when chocolate would have served as a reminder of home while abroad fighting.
Initially, the bars were greatly disliked – but they were designed that way. The military asked Hershey’s to design a bar that was nutritious, would not melt, and would be a last resort food supplement, not a dessert (Ration D Bars; Hershey Community Achieves). However, by the middle of the war, the US military requested that the flavor be improved. The new bar had much more a resemblance to normal chocolate bars, and by the end of 1945, the Hershey’s production plant was producing approximately 24 million bars a week for the soldiers (Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bar, Hershey Community Achieves). It even became part of a more varied number of military rations, including C and K. In other words, there was barely a soldier who didn’t have Hershey’s chocolate during the war.
Thus, Hershey’s became king in America; its chocolate flavor became known to millions during the war. More than that though, Hershey’s became a symbol of America. After the war, the company was awarded five Army-Navy ‘E’ Production Awards in recognition of consistently meeting high standards of quality and quantity in light of available resources (Ration D Bars; Hershey Community Achieves). It was so iconic that the Tropical Bar went to the moon with the Apollo 15 astronauts (Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bar; Hershey Community Achieves). As such, it is clear how the Hershey’s taste gained popularity in America.
The affinity for this flavor has not spread to the British. Likely, this is due to the fact that people prefer what chocolate they grew up with (Metz, BBC; 18 March 2015). Americans prefer a robust flavor; the French love extra bitter; the Swiss love buttery and smooth (Presilla, 2001; 135). So, as chocolate became more popular a treat, people desired and became accustomed to the flavor that was most readily available. This is most reflected in how chocolate brands expand into new markets. For example, consider the American version of Cadbury as it is disliked by most Brits. This is because Cadbury tries to replicate the taste people grew up with (Severson, New York Times; 11 July 2007). In the United States, that means a bar that is more akin to Hershey’s, which tastes sour to the British.
Importantly, this taste rivalry has had ripple effects to other chocolates today, as other companies attempt to match home preferences. This trend does not only affect large companies. Hershey’s process with the milk naturally creates butyric acid, but other companies are now adding it to their chocolate (Moskin, New York Times; 12 February 2008). In other words, local companies may be trying to replicate nation preferences as well. In this way, the historical forces that caused the American palate to differ from the British are alive and well today. Thus, while the difference in Hershey’s and Cadbury may at first seem unimportant or at least contained, it actually may have broad implications for the contemporary chocolate industry.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bar. (n.d.). Retrieved May 04, 2016, from http://www.hersheyarchives.org/essay/details.aspx?EssayId=39
Metz. (2015, March 18). Does Cadbury chocolate taste different in different countries? BBC News. Retrieved May 4, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31924912
Moskin. (2008, February 13). Dark May Be King, but Milk Chocolate Makes a Move. The New York Times. Retrieved May 4, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/13/dining/13chocolate.html
Ration D Bars. (n.d.). Retrieved May 04, 2016, from http://www.hersheyarchives.org/essay/details.aspx?EssayId=26
Severson. (2007, July 11). The World’s Best Candy Bars? English, of Course. The New York Times. Retrieved May 4, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/11/dining/11cand.html?oref=login&_r=0
Spector. (2015, January 27). Why British And American Chocolate Taste Different. Business Insider. Retrieved May 4, 2016, from http://www.businessinsider.com/why-british-and-american-chocolate-taste-different-2015-1
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