Foreign Candy Puts American Candy to Shame
It’s so much more than the flavors.
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At Sunrise Mart, a small Japanese grocery with a branch in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, you can’t miss the mountain of KitKats. The shop sells all kinds of fresh foods and imported snacks, but as soon as you step inside, you’re toe-to-toe with an enormous heap of colorful bags of the chocolate bars, rising up from the floor in the store’s most prominent real estate. The bags offer flavors such as lychee, chocolate orange, and cheesecake. At $10 each, they’re a little expensive. That doesn’t seem to matter. When I visited the store this spring in search of soup ingredients, multiple shoppers buzzed around me on an otherwise slow weekday afternoon, snapping up bag after bag.
I’d never had anything but a standard American KitKat before, but I’d heard so many people rave about the Japanese versions that stumbling on the opportunity to try them myself seemed like money I couldn’t afford not to spend. I stuffed two bags of the pistachio and matcha flavors in my tote and headed for the subway, feeling like I’d just unearthed some kind of treasure. When I got home, I pulled out both, plus a few other packages of impulse-purchased Asian candy that I’d scooped up (you know, while I was there), and staged my own little taste test on my kitchen counter. Their flavors and textures differed from the candy I’d been eating for my entire life. They were all great. Matcha won.
Without realizing it, I’d repeated a ritual that’s become pretty common, both online and in real life. YouTube and TikTok videos of Americans taste-testing candies from Europe, Asia, and Latin America rack up millions of views. At Economy Candy, a Manhattan confectioner that stocks a huge variety of sweets, new customers come in every day, brandishing their phones, fiending to try candies from far-flung locales that they heard about on the internet or that their roommate tried on vacation. Skye Greenfield Cohen, who runs the store with her husband, told me that as recently as five years ago, Economy Candy had only a few racks of imports. “That meant halvah from the Middle East, Turkish delight, those kinds of grandmalike candy that were more nostalgic for a homeland, rather than fun,” she said. Now imports from around the world make up about a third of the store’s inventory.
On one level, it’s not difficult to understand why any type of candy, foreign or domestic, becomes popular. Candy is engineered to entice and delight, and it’s mostly pretty cheap. But American shoppers don’t exactly lack domestic candy options; any average grocery store’s checkout line is bursting with Snickers, Twizzlers, M&Ms, and Skittles. The hunger for foreign treats can’t be entirely explained by the vagaries of social-media virality, either. According to one estimate, since 2009, the annual value of America’s non-chocolate candy imports has grown by hundreds of millions of dollars; in 2019, it crossed the $2 billion threshold for the first time. Some logistical and cultural factors help explain the United States’ imported-candy boom. But first and foremost, Americans seem to love foreign sweets because they’re having the same revelation I had in my kitchen with my green KitKats: The international stuff puts most domestic candy to shame.
In the early 2010s, executives at the American division of the Japanese confectioner Morinaga & Company noticed something strange happening in Utah. The company’s Hi-Chew brand of fruit-flavored candies, which was then difficult to find in much of the United States, was selling extraordinarily well in Salt Lake City. The success was welcome—Morinaga wanted to expand its market in the U.S.—but it didn’t immediately make sense. At the time, the majority of the company’s American sales came from West Coast cities with large Asian populations, where the candies were stocked by grocers who catered to people who already knew and liked them. Salt Lake City, which is almost three-quarters white, was anomalously enamored of the intensely chewy little fruit nuggets.
The company eventually figured out what was going on: According to Teruhiro Kawabe, Morinaga America’s president, missionaries from the Church of Latter-Day Saints were coming home from stints in Japan, where Hi-Chew has been omnipresent for decades, and buying up as much of the candy as they could find. “They got to know the candy in the Japanese grocery stores, and they got addicted,” Kawabe told me. Soon their friends and families were, too. The Salt Lake City scenario wasn’t exactly replicable, but Kawabe said that it served as proof of concept: Americans would love the candy, if the company could get it in front of them.
Getting a particular product in front of shoppers, though, is much easier said than done, especially when it comes to things that are largely unknown or thought to have a niche audience. Candy purchases tend to be spur-of-the-moment decisions made at checkout counters, and that real estate is limited and has long been spoken for by conglomerates such as Hershey and Mars, which make much of the candy that Americans have been eating for their entire life. To take a shot at mainstream American success, Hi-Chew’s makers did the usual stuff that consumer-products businesses do: They hired retail consultants, switched distributors, that kind of thing. But they also set their sights on a very important group: Major League Baseball players, the only people who routinely spend time chewing snacks in extreme close-up on TV. Morinaga supplied Japanese players in the league with Hi-Chew, Kawabe told me, focusing first on teams in markets where major retailers were headquartered. The gambit worked; ESPN reported on just how obsessed the 2015 Yankees squad was with the little fruit candies. Walgreens and CVS picked up the brand after it became popular with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. Regular people tried the newly plentiful and suddenly trendy candy, and then insisted that their brother or spouse or co-workers try it. Hi-Chew’s U.S. sales grew from $8 million in 2012 to more than $100 million in 2021, according to Kawabe.
This success story might feel a little bit too convenient, but baseball players’ mid-2010s Hi-Chew mania was well documented—and, apparently, ongoing. Moreover, explosive American growth in the past decade has been common among foreign candy brands. Sales of gummy candies from the German confectioner Haribo more than doubled from 2011 to 2017. Ferrero, the Italian parent company of Kinder chocolates, says that the line’s U.S. sales are growing by double digits annually. The European chocolate brands Milka and Cadbury are now owned by the American Oreo-maker Mondelez—an advantage over other confectioners when navigating import and retail red tape.
None of these companies pulled off the same tactic with baseball players, but their rise seems to have followed similar patterns. Greenfield Cohen, from Economy Candy, said sales growth largely happens by word of mouth. This is helped along by the increasing popularity of international travel and the internet’s ability to serve niche products to a potentially large pool of previously untapped buyers. European candy in particular benefits from these dynamics—millions of American tourists visit the continent every year, and destination-specific candies are a common gift for returning travelers to bring home to loved ones. (That’s how I first tried Hi-Chew way back in 2002, although my high-school best friend had gone on a family trip to the exotic land of Tampa, not Japan.) Now the barrier between trying one piece of interesting candy—or even just hearing someone rave about it—and keeping a stockpile in your pantry or desk drawer is as low as it’s ever been.
Of course, candy also needs to taste good for people to like it. All the word of mouth in the world won’t permanently increase sales of a bad product. Once people try candy from other parts of the world, they return to it because it is, in some very real ways, better than its domestic competitors.
Have you ever had a matcha KitKat? Its physical form is identical to that of a regular KitKat, except instead of chocolate, it’s blanketed in bright green. Where many Americans would expect the familiar, slightly bland flavor of milk chocolate, there’s an earthy, creamy sweetness—perfect for people who, like me, get a little queasy after a few pieces of sickly sweet Halloween candy. With Hi-Chews, each wrapped in tiny squares of plain-white waxed paper, the flavors are important—and far more varied than in popular American fruit candies—but the primary feature is the texture. Chewing one feels like you’ve encountered a Starburst that fights back. It’s delicious.
The reasons for foreign candy’s superiority are varied—and more surprising than you might expect. In some cases, yes, a candy is better because it is fundamentally different, on a chemical level, than what’s available in America. Europe’s strict regulations on chocolate quality mean that it offers something that’s not really comparable to a Hershey bar (and that Europeans are generally enthusiastic to tell you how much American chocolate sucks). The European Union also bans certain food additives that the FDA allows, which can yield slightly different results in all kinds of finished products, including candy.
These cases seem to be the exception, not the rule, however. Ali Bouzari, a culinary scientist and co-founder of the product-development firm Pilot R&D, doesn’t buy the idea that inherently superior quality is the reason that so many people are charmed by imported sweets. “The basic tools of commercial candy manufacture are pretty universal, and the ingredients that people work with are fully globalized,” Bouzari told me. German brands, Japanese brands, and American brands likely all source their grape flavorings, for example, from the same vendors. What’s different—and what makes foreign candies so enticing—instead mostly seems to be in the implementation. Imported candies tend to embrace flavors and textures that American candies don’t. “I will always first go for the melon stuff” when shopping in an East Asian grocery store, Bouzari said. “This is candy inspired by a culture that thinks about melons more than we do.” Every part of the world has some kind of confection that it does particularly well: Scandinavians produce more flavors and textures of licorice than most Americans could dream of. Mexican candy frequently includes savory or spicy flavors. Candies from a number of East and South Asian countries tend to feature a far wider array of fruit flavors than are available in the West.
The flavorings and ingredients that go into these candies are likely available to American manufacturers from the vendors they’re already using, according to Bouzari. Foreign producers develop products primarily for their domestic markets, so they make different choices and end up with results that can feel idiosyncratic—sometimes thrillingly so—to the American palate. As food culture has globalized, those palates have become more adventurous, especially in larger metropolitan areas, where more types of food have become more widely available in restaurants and grocery stores than ever before. Meanwhile, Bouzari told me, major U.S. manufacturers haven’t really kept up. They depend on appealing to as broad a swath of the country’s atypically diverse population as possible—not just across racial and ethnic lines, but across the country’s many local and regional food cultures. The results are candies that tend to be highly sweet and pretty bland, forgoing flavors and textures that brands believe might alienate white Americans in particular.
All that being said, American tastes have a way of bending the world to their will. Once a foreign confectioner achieves a certain level of American success, it usually ends up adjusting its products for the American market, even if only a little. Kawabe, Morinaga America’s president, told me that some of the Hi-Chew flavors sold in mainstream U.S. retailers vary slightly from what’s available in Japan. When Americans buy grape candy, for example, their flavor expectations are just different from when the Japanese buy the same thing. Candy companies that want huge U.S. sales growth, for better or worse, need to meet people where they are.
The most salient difference between foreign and domestic candy might not be chemical or methodological, but rather philosophical. New American products could theoretically embrace the lessons of imported candy and snatch up some of its growing domestic market share. But in Bouzari’s experience, much of the candy being developed domestically, such as low-carb candy from brands like Smart Sweets and Highkey, isn’t trying to delight consumers, but to placate their health fears by engineering it into diet food. “Candy is meant to be edible, ephemeral entertainment,” he said. “If you try to turn it into food, you get caught in a weird no-man’s-land where it’s neither the complete entertainment that it should be, and it’s not as nourishing as it should be.”
For Americans who want something fun and novel and sweet, overseas might just be the most logical place to look right now. “In most other places I’ve been in the world, there is a more well-adjusted relationship to hedonism in food than we have here,” Bouzari said. “Other people spend less time trying to figure out how to eat gummy bears with no sugar.”