Europe has a significantly different approach to food than we do here in the U.S., and it becomes very apparent once you leave the states. What stood out for us - as we were eating our way around Portugal - was how fresh, simple, and full of taste the food was compared to what we have experienced back in the states.
Both in Lisbon and in the Algarve, they eat what is in season. It’s easy to go to the markets and find beautiful, hand-picked fruits, or fresh fish that was caught that very morning. In the U.S. we seem to value access over seasonality. We expect all produce to be available all the time. This means that our food is often harvested well before it is ready. When produce is left to ripen on the vine it has more nutrients and flavor. It would not occur to the Portuguese to eat a mealy tomato in the winter. They would simply wait for the right season and have a delicious, juicy, flavorful tomato at that time.
In Portugal, local farmers sell their products to local markets. They simply don’t have the large-scale farming system producing food on a national level like we have in the states. The Portuguese therefore don’t have the added expense of shipping food across the country, and they don’t have the “middleman” buyers we have in the states, which also adds to the cost of our food.
Shoppers in Portugal (and Europe) expect freshness and good taste and they won’t settle for less. This will come as no surprise, but Europe does not have the same set size and color requirements for produce that we have in the states - they care more about the quality and freshness of the food than how it looks. In the US, because of these set requirements for size and color, we end up throwing away tons of food that don’t meet the pre-set standard appearance.
Europe and the U.S. also have different approaches concerning both the health of food and its safety. The EU bans several pesticides and hormones that are widely used in foods grown in the states, and in nearly 50 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and every country of the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of genetically modified food. Growth hormones in animals, rBGH (a hormone in dairy cattle), and Atrazine (a weed killer) are all banned in the EU, but widely accepted and used in the states. The U.S. government does not even mandate labeling of GMO products and this lack of regulation means you do not really know what you are eating.
In addition to regulatory differences, citizens of the EU simply demand higher quality food than do American consumers. It is true that many American Food companies produce healthier versions of their products to sell overseas. The U.S. food producers know that the original versions of their products will not be accepted in Europe.
Food is vital to our health and well-being, and our system in the U.S. is desperately in need of an overhaul. As someone who spent decades working on a national level in the organic and natural foods industry, I have always known that, but as Carla and I eat our way through Europe, I am constantly amazed by how different the food here looks and tastes and how much it is celebrated.