How happy are German cows?
April 21, 2011 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm heading over to Europe in a few weeks and I'm curious about the differences in food quality and food ingredients as compared to the U.S. What will I find there that might be emblematic of a different system or attitude toward food?

I saw this Ted talk from Robyn O'Brien about her kids and their specific allergies to food and her search for answers in the American food system. It's got a slightly hysterical tone (of course, that's what They™ want us to think, amirite?) but I think the most important thing to take away is that something weird is happening with food allergies and it would be fantastic if we could get to the bottom of it.

We are staying the whole time in Germany so anything particularly relevant to that country would be great. But, I imagine that most of the EU will have similar food policies? Also: how do you say "high fructose corn syrup" in German?
posted by amanda to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
HFCS as a sugar substitute doesn't really exist in europe - and not for any health reason, but simply because it isn't cost competitive with sugar. Only because of the US tariff regime on sugar does HFCS exist.

Attitudes towards food and eating are totally different. Even before addressing issues of social norms - like the propriety of eating on the street and what not, Europeans in general spend a much greater % of their disposible income on food, even though they eat less of it for a calorie perspective.

Can't answer the food allergy question. I suspect its bias, so I'll pass.
posted by JPD at 9:46 AM on April 21, 2011

What I noticed when I was visiting Norway a couple months ago was that the food doesn't have nearly as many ingredients as in the US. Much less filler and non-pronounceable who-knows-what in it. Perhaps fewer preservatives too since much of the food in Norway appears to be produced there instead of being trucked thousands upon thousands of miles to its destination like we do here. To me the food seemed to be higher quality than what you would typically find in US grocery stores.
posted by flod logic at 9:53 AM on April 21, 2011

They leave their eggs out, usually in a bowl in the counter. I believe that eggs in Europe are treated differently and need not be refrigerated.
posted by amicamentis at 9:58 AM on April 21, 2011

This doesn't precisely answer your questions, but what I notice first in Europe is that there's much greater respect for quality and simplicity of ingredients, and more care and pride taken in preparation. Obviously, a generalization that may not stand up overall.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:04 AM on April 21, 2011

Lots of stuff will be super-pasteurized, so you'll notice boxes of milk on the shelves of grocery stores (in the non-refrigerated section) and things like eggs on counters as mentioned above. I've also personally noticed a more blase attitude towards refrigerating left overs also, but that may have just been my friends.

Many EU countries have limits or prohibitions on genetically modified foods so you won't see any of those (or much much less at least).

No HFCS, so things like sodas will taste.....different to your tongue.

Street foods are awesome and delicious, eat as much of it as you can!
posted by ejazen at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2011

You will die and ascend to heaven on a golden cloud when you taste real, actual cheese for the first time. And the ice cream. Oh my god, the ice cream. I think I had about 20 little bowls of peach yogurt.

Not even beginning to touch on the rustic integrity of most of the entrees...
posted by notion at 10:17 AM on April 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

For Germany I'd also say - bread and cold meats will bear little resemblance to a lot of the things you're used to.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:21 AM on April 21, 2011

The biggest difference is that people usually buy food on a daily basis rather than 2 weeks at a time. You can guess how much tastier food is as a result.
posted by dripdripdrop at 10:21 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

rBST is basically prohibited in the EU, so you can assume that milk and other dairy products come from cows that haven't been given growth hormones, and they don't have to carry the icky Monsanto-driven, FDA-mandated wording found on milk cartons in the US about rBST.
posted by holgate at 10:22 AM on April 21, 2011

Actually, HFCS is subject to a production quota in the EU, which is why there's so much less of it than sugar. In France, so I'm guessing in Germany as well, there are several food quality labels. For meats (including oysters, by the way), the reference is Label Rouge. This means free-range animals that are individually tracked throughout their lives, and deaths, since they're traced after slaughter too. Last time I was in the US, I was completely weirded out by how meat that had been red in the store when I'd bought it 12 hours earlier, at a similar price to high-quality Label Rouge meat, turned grey in that amount of time (in the refrigerator!). And had no taste. Chicken in the US was so watery, it was eery. So you'll definitely notice that quality meats actually taste like meat.

And damn are oysters fines de claire delicious. OMG. Since you'll be in Germany I won't mention eating hand-picked snails in homemade parsley-garlic-butter sauces, nor frog legs made from freshly-caught frogs ;-) To be honest, though, they are indeed worth a try, if you ever get the chance.
posted by fraula at 11:04 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are, of course, many large differences in food policies between different European countries. But very generally the higher end range of restaurants and shops tend to feature a mix of local specialities and some lessons about presentation and preparation taken from countries like France, Italy and Spain. In many places you can find markets to which the locals walk to pick up some of their food. You might also notice that people will often expect their young kids to eat exactly the same thing as their parents in a restaurant (and to sit still for a couple of hours while everybody finishes).

But I would not wish to paint too idealistic a picture:you see obesity, food allergies and highly processed food just like you get back home.
posted by rongorongo at 11:05 AM on April 21, 2011

Steaks are different, at least in the middle-range places I've eaten at in Germany. I had some tough steaks, at least in comparison with the well-marbled but tasteless steaks you get in the US. It's possible I just had some bad experiences, but my European companions agreed that beef is different there.
posted by cabingirl at 11:17 AM on April 21, 2011

I'm from Germany but live in the US...

Bread... if there's one thing I've been missing since I moved from Germany to the US it's an abundance of good bread and baked goods. I've found a few sources that make decent stuff but it's nothing like back home.

Eggs... somehow eggs in Germany are not only tastier but the yolks are much darker and more orange. That's less to do with quality maybe and more with chicken feed... I think they feed them a betacarotene enriched diet.

Milk... at least when you get milk from anywhere near the alps you'll notice a huge difference. At least if it's from happy cows that actually graze on the slopes eating yummy herbs. I miss good milk.

Sausages/Cold Cuts... unbeatable!

Beer... nothing artificial in here. Pure and good.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:23 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

As you appear to be going to Munich may I also point out that you can eat your own food in beer gardens as long as you buy the beer you can bring whatever nice morsels you pick up during the day, retire to the beer garden of choice, get your drinks and find a table in semi shade and eat exactly what you want, taking as long as you want, enjoying the benefit of a table and chairs as opposed to a blanket on the grass etc...beware that there will also always be areas where you cannot consume your own food, where you will be served by waiters and these will normally be indicated by table cloths on the tables. This should also be an option in Garmisch but is not common practice outside Bavaria.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:41 AM on April 21, 2011

Europe is immensely culturally varied, and that applies to food as much as anything else. You can't generalise about Europe. Look for replies that talk specifically about Germany.

And yes, as someone kinda suggested, have some unpasteurised cheese. The best of European food is local, un-fucked-about-with and absolutely bloody delicious.
posted by Decani at 11:52 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

how do you say "high fructose corn syrup" in German?

I don't know, but in the UK it's listed as 'fructose-glucose syrup', or if there's less than a certain % of fructose it's 'glucose-fructose syrup'. It does exist, often in fruit juice drinks, flavoured yoghurts and all sorts of other processed things (looking through my kitchen, I can only find it in HP sauce at the moment, but I think that's more to do with me not having much in the cupboards than anything else).

While I've never been to Germany, my major food memory from the US is that the bread tasted much sweeter than bread I've had anywhere else (NZ, Aus, various European countries). So, apart from things like pumpernickel, expect ordinary bread not to be sweet.
posted by Lebannen at 12:13 PM on April 21, 2011

Spend at least a little time shopping like a German, which includes deep discounters like Aldi as well as the specialist food shops. Like rongorongo, I don't want to over-romanticise, especially for northern Europe, where the diet is traditionally... solid: you'll see processed and pre-packaged food, but not the same dominance or profusion on the shelves.

The geographical advantages of the US as a huge, agriculturally-diverse nation have led to an inevitable concentrations of production: corn and soy from the plains, potatoes from Idaho, lettuce from California's Central Valley, etc. Even with the EU's single market, that kind of large-scale, single-crop division of production hasn't taken hold, and travelling between cities, you'll see a more diverse agricultural mix -- and usually a more distinct division between suburb and rural land use -- than in the US.
posted by holgate at 12:19 PM on April 21, 2011

I'm Canadian and have just moved to Germany for a year. So far I've noticed a huge difference in the choice and better quality of meats (sausages, salami, and cold cuts), cheese, bread, and beer. All of these are also cheaper than in Canada. Also, people have small fridges so they tend to shop often and eat fresh food. No complaints so far! :)
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 3:30 PM on April 21, 2011

Also, people have small fridges so they tend to shop often and eat fresh food. No complaints so far! :)

Oh yeah: I would say the coolest food thing about my very brief time in Europe was that you were tripping over lovely little food shops on the way home. It's amazing to pick up fresh everything and then cook it the same night. Plus, instead of gigantor prepackaged boxes, you can get a little bit of this and that in wax paper and reduce your waste and improve the flavor.

I've been told some bits of the northeast are the same, but I haven't really spent time there. Down in the south we have farmer's markets, but there's one good one about every 10-15 miles, so it doesn't make sense to shop there everyday.
posted by notion at 4:05 PM on April 21, 2011

Cheese. Even the cheapest, no-name cheese is tasty. You can get tasty, affordable cheese in convenience stores.

Oh, I miss the cheese.
posted by jb at 6:09 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I miss the creamy, creamy grocery store yogurts in Italy (most of which were actually German) others have said, no HFCS, minimal ingredients, and very fresh. Also, you may find that what is cheap vs. expensive here is reversed over there...Diet Coke and chips can cost 5 Euro but a large serving of high quality cheese is the equivalent of a buck or less. Shopping at whole foods hurt even more than usual after a year living in Florence.

My advice is to try as many of the mundane snacks as possible. The weird breakfast crackers and boxed juices that aren't available here became a really nice part of my cultural experience.
posted by shrimpsmalls at 6:43 PM on April 21, 2011

I miss the bread & meats in Germany too. We've found sources for brotchen & wurst here in the US but it isn't the same.

Portion sizes and the meal experience are different too. You got less food and spent more time eating it -- or so it seemed.

The one thing I don't miss is the lack of ice in drinks. I still can't stand the taste of Coke because of always getting warm (or shudder, hot) Coke in Germany. Then again, don't bother with Coke. You can get that in the States.
posted by jaimystery at 9:59 PM on April 21, 2011

Also: how do you say "high fructose corn syrup" in German?

"Fructose-Glucose-Sirup". You almost certainly won't encounter it if you don't buy food from the American Imports aisle of a grocery store.

One thing that I find emblematic of food in Germany is that people still often buy from specialists - meat from a butcher, bread (the best bread in the world, in my experience) from a bakery, vegetables from a green grocer. You'll also notice in Bavaria that large chunks of the country-side are devoted to farming, even on the outskirts of cities, and it's fairly varied in what they're growing. In general there's a higher expectation of quality for what people here put in their bodies - food or beer. That's not to say that people don't eat terribly sometimes; McDonalds is everywhere, and döner can't be particularly healthy.
posted by cmonkey at 11:06 PM on April 21, 2011

I moved to Austria, and the most startling differences have been in the dairy products and eggs. The yogurt and milk here is just different from the stuff you get in the states. (Also, nonfat milk doesn't seem to exist, which is a boon).

The eggs are so good that you can have two poached eggs for breakfast every morning without anything else but some salt and pepper and it's a wonderfully satisfying meal. I did that for a year here, came back to the states and tried it and felt totally gross; I needed toast or sausages or something to compensate for whatever was lacking in the eggs. Have fun! Get some bratwurst!
posted by sdis at 1:19 AM on April 22, 2011

We just got back from Germany a few days ago, so I feel compelled to answer this! I was actually very surprised at the high quality of food we encountered. We mostly ate family cooked meals, and a few times I looked at the ingredients and nutrition labels (having a child, I wanted to make sure he wasn't eating anything weird). I stopped worrying about it a few days in when I came to the conclusion that food over there was a lot better than here. They also disclose what sort of nitrates and bad crap are in everything on pre-made food we found at rest stop buffets and hotel buffets, which was helpful. I could not find any HFCS anywhere, including soda. Germans don't eat beef, so worrying about antibiotics in cows was not necessary. We ate a lot of pork, cheese, bread, pretzels, etc. Everything was amazing. German food is incredible once you get past the strange-sounding names. I was worried about the amount of sausage we had to eat, but the sausage is different there. It's delicious and I would kill for one right now!! Enjoy your stay and don't worry about your food, if you're eating authentic, then you'll be fine.
posted by katypickle at 5:38 AM on April 28, 2011

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