By: Mersina Galianos
One of the most significant aspects of culture around the world is food. Luckily for Americans, it’s relatively simple to find good and even authentic food from other countries across all five continents. Unfortunately, because they are manufactured in America, these items are designed to satisfy consumers and attract more of them by emphasizing flavor and appearance. For example, cheese is considered a processed food, and when combined with pasta to form an Italian dish, it essentially ruins it by removing the natural flavors, textures, and colors. Since additional ingredients, such as oils, food coloring, sugar, etc may be added, there are various different types of processed cheese. But this doesn’t mean that all cheeses, and all ingredients in general, are unnatural. It’s not too difficult to find cheese from local farms or organic stores, and when cheese is labeled organic, it will contain at least 95% organically produced raw/processed products. But these natural cheeses are more likely to be double the price of processed cheese, meaning the latter may be people’s first choice in regards to purchasing cheese. The authenticity of meals with ingredients like processed cheese will be diminished if Americans continue to add other unnatural ingredients to them.
According to the Department of Agriculture, foods are considered processed when any raw foods or ingredients have been altered from their natural state. “…processed food is any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged — anything is done to them that alters their natural state. This may include adding preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives, or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.” This varies based on the type of commodity, but overall most foods found in supermarkets and grocery stores are processed during their preparation. “They’ve (processed foods) been blamed for the national rise in obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes,” explains Anne Harguth, a registered dietitian in Minnesota. The unhealthiness of these processed foods takes away from their authenticity, where they are healthy and/or fresh. Katrina Paulson uses a quote from an online platform in her article about food additives that demonstrates how “European regulations against additives in food products are stricter than they are in the United States.” It’s a known fact to just about everyone nowadays that almost all foods in the US are made with food additives, unlike in Europe, where the only additives put into food are proved to be unharmful. The difference between the food additives in the US and Europe is very noticeable once an individual has both. Academy of American Studies student Anisa Kandic points out how she can taste that American-Montenegrian food is processed and not natural and that it even tastes “plastic-y” to her whenever she dines in restaurants or makes her own food at home. She clarifies that food in Montenegro looks and tastes better than Montenegrian/Kosovar food made in America, and how she feels better eating them there than she does in the US. This difference in the foods that Anisa and many immigrants and their families easily recognize discourages them from having their own ethnic foods because the US decides to add all types of preservatives and flavoring to them.
People visiting or just moving to the US will try to find authentic food from their home countries, and be disappointed when they realize that the countries prepare the foods differently. “…Yet, she did not realize food from her homeland would be prepared differently to please the American palate,” says Chao Yu, a graduate student from Qingdao, China. Even if the ingredients are unauthentic, restaurants can still make, or at least attempt to make, the foods as similar as they can to the real thing. But in the US, these recipes are totally different from how they’re prepared in their origin countries. Ashley Martinez, author of “American Adaptations Lack Authenticity” for themiamihurricane.com writes about how Chinese food in America and Chinese food in China are cooked, prepared, and served differently from one another. “A typical meal from a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. wouldn’t be complete without fortune cookies, wonton soup, and some orange chicken. However, in China, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are no fortune cookies, wonton soup is typically only served for breakfast and orange chicken will be challenging to find on the menu.” In Brazil, açaí is one of the most popular desserts, and it’s growing and becoming popular in the United States. Sophia Boutureira, a student at the Academy of American Studies, loves to go out and order her traditional Brazilian foods, such as beans, rice, and acai bowls for dessert. She describes that the açaí is purer and more natural, while in the US there’s more sugar. In Brazil, they don’t add bananas, blueberries, or strawberries, only granola and on occasion, they would add honey. She further explains how it’s cheaper in Brazil, with a cost of around 20 cents in USD. American restaurants don’t follow the traditions that foreign countries have when it comes to their food and dining, which people see as essentially ruining the traditional, cultural dishes. As result of these immigrants bringing their home-country meals with them to the United States, it led to people wanting to recreate it with their own twists on it. In his new book The Ethnic Restaurateur, Krishnendu Ray, book chair of the food studies program at New York University, “explores the history of how immigrants in the food industry have shaped American notions of good taste — even as they themselves may occupy the lower echelons of the social hierarchy.” As a result of this, authentic meals are being reapproached into satisfying the American palate. Ray explained how Greeks, Italians, and other ethnic groups gained popularity in the food business and began to develop their ethnic food traditions in the US. “In an increasingly multicultural society, the term ‘ethnic food,’ while still commonly used, is now starting to take on an offensive character, lumping all nonwhite people and their cuisines together in a category of ‘other.’” As these ethnic groups began to develop popularity over their food traditions in the US, American palates started to expand and change towards these foods. “Each new large wave of immigration has remade American cuisine for the better, making it ‘more creative and rich…’” Unfortunately for these cultural meals, the American ingredients and processed foods result in these recipes being altered from their natural state. “And just as Italian food was once given the side-eye by nutritionists, Chinese food was also derided under the auspices of science. Witness the health scare that began in the 1960s over MSG, used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese cuisine and many other foods, too…” explains Maria Godoy, author of “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition.” But this is very different from the authenticity people demand from “ethnic” cuisine. Ray says that what customers really want is a replica of what they think a dish should taste like. As a result, immigrant cooks easily able to fall into a trap of very narrow expectations of the American expectation of authentic ethnic foods.