Of the culinary kind. More specifically, the food additives that are ubiquitous in Mexico and Central America. I don’t want to fault the Mexicans, who are obsessed with flavor, and are apt to add additives to enhance that which they crave. Nor the Guatemalans, who when they don’t fall in the former category with their neighbors, may be trying to eke a few more days or weeks of usability out of their food purchases. It’s just that – well, we’re spoiled, having lived in Switzerland/Europe (for 9 years in my case and her whole life in my charming bride’s case), where additives are not unheard of, but rather less frequent.
Let me give you some examples of categories where we either struggled to avoid food additives or discovered the hard way which items to avoid.
First and foremost, beer. Additives in beer, you say, incredulously? Yes indeed. In this case, I’m not even worried about sugar, which appears to be added to all beer in addition to everything else in the region. No, it’s worse: Propylene Glycol. Yes, the same chemical that is used to de-ice planes and keep your windshield clean in winter has made an appearance in what is now my least favorite beer on earth: Brahva.
Brahva, which tastes like otherwise unremarkable cheap lager, has anti-freeze in it. Presumably this is for marketing purposes, in order to have the coldest beer available, located in their custom refrigerators that they bought for every bodega. Not just interested in being the coldest beer, though, legend is that they (InBev, owners of Brahma of Brazil and Budweiser aka “AMERICA BEER ELECTION PUBLICITY BOOYAH”) invaded the Guatemalan market after the Castillo family refused to sell them the Cabro brewery for less than US$1 billion. And “invade” is the correct word, because they are market dumping by selling their beer for less than half of the cost of Cabro, and around half of the next cheapest local competitor, Gallo. Ice cold!
Fortunately for fans of quality beer at nearly every price point, Guatemalans (particularly those from Quetzaltenango, home of Cabro) are nationalist enough to reject the Belgian-Brazilian invasion – not a single Guatemalan we’ve chatted with has owned up to drinking Brahva. One of them even went so far as to call it the leading cause of diarrhea in the country, which is saying something when your drinking water is polluted with amoebas, e.coli and god knows what else.
Okay, beer. Sure, you say, but isn’t that KIND OF a luxury item? What about things that really matter?
(Firstly, anyone who considers beer a luxury item is so fired. Just turn in your keys to the web browser right now and get off the internet.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier after beer! Take my daily breakfast: yogurt and granola. I don’t want to confine the issue as solely one with Mexico and Centroamerica: obviously it is more of a problem in the USA to find yogurt without any additives than in Switzerland or Germany, where you can buy half a kilo of unsweetened, un-thickened, un-stabilized-with-gelatin yogurt for about US$0.90.
In the interests of diplomatic relations, though, we’re going to spot the USA a few points here, because the situation in Guatemala and Mexico is worse. Far worse. Because when you buy an average pound of “natural” yogurt in either of those countries, what you’re getting will astound you: yogurt with no artificial flavoring, but loads of sugar. That’s right, friends – “natural” Dannon yogurt means sweetened. I was astonished!
On the left, we have Glad “Greek Style” – made in Guatemala. On the right, we have YES Natural Yogurt, made in Mexico and El Salvador. In the trip so far, these are the only two natural yogurts without added sugar. And that’s the best of a bad lot – even these have some stabilizers and such, but they are at least as natural as decent plain yogurt in the USA.
Now that you think I’m totally and unreasonably spoiled, let me pontificate for a while about granola and really drive your (correct) impression home. In Mexico, it was relatively easy to find crunchy granola that wasn’t too loaded up with crap. In Belize, there was a particularly good variety made by “Dis an Dat” company of San Ignacio, as well as some imported stuff.
In Guatemala? So far, it’s pretty dire. Kellogg’s and Quaker have recently entered the market, importing from Mexico. Their stuff is…pretty much what you would expect, a mid-quality mass market product. But the local brands? One of them appears to be made of 95% crunchy ground corn, kind of like if you annihilated a box of Corn Flakes, or opened a bag of animal feed. Another one is a bag of oats that is loaded with added vitamins and artificial flavoring. (Nothing reminds me of Jolly Ranchers more than “artificial apple flavor”.)
Neither of those strikes me as particularly healthy or delicious, and they appear to have an added drawback of being producers of methane, so to speak. So we stick with the Kellogg’s, despite artificial maple flavor being diabolical, and continue to pine for Farmer Croc. (NB: There is one more brand called “Saluvita” which I have sitting on our table right now – we’ve not tried it yet, but it doesn’t appear to have any additives – let’s see if it has any flavor as it looks like a bag of oats, and the first ingredient is sesame seeds.)
Let’s hit a few quick foods before I get executed a la Marie Antoinette.
Milk: Melanie had a hard time in one town in Mexico finding fresh milk that didn’t have flavors added. Since then we’ve stuck with UHT milk from Lala that she is relatively happy with.
Salutaris club soda: has some kind of perfuming in it that isn’t listed on the label. Canada Dry club soda: water with bubbles, like nature intended. (Yes, I am an adopted European that likes bubbly water. Deal with it.)
Orange juice: buying oranges to make your own is a guaranteed messy good time. Buying in the store? Read the label as only a couple brands (including Naturalismo in Guatemala) don’t add sugar and aren’t from concentrate.
Sliced sandwich cheese: if you don’t want individually wrapped slices of gub’mint cheese, you’ll be buying something imported from the USA. (Don’t even ask about deli meats, it’s a grim situation.)
Guatemalan ‘parmesan’ and ‘cheddar’ – at least as good as the crap you buy in a bag in the US, but not as good as the green can or Cabot – much less the proper stuff.
Peanut Butter: we bought a jar of Reese’s peanut butter in Mexico. (Yes, we are tremendous hypocrites.)
Jams/jellies: most of the time, horrendous – this goes double for anything in a hotel breakfast. We did find this nice strawberry jam that has normal jam ingredients only, and the dulce de leche is also fan-farkin’-tastic and all-natural.
That’s enough for now – the sun’s over the yardarm, and as a doomed royal once said, let them drink beer! And, for best results, stick with Cabro, Gallo or one of the lovely Salvadoran import microbrews. Ta!