Global pizza domination makes Italy the world’s leading cuisine “exporter”

Pizza is one of Italy’s cuisine exports to China.
Pizza is one of Italy’s cuisine exports to China.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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When it comes to movies and music, the US dominates global cultural exports. Not so much for cuisine. Italy, China and Japan are the world’s leaders in “exporting” their cuisines, claims a recently released study (paywall).

The idea of cuisine as an export is a peculiar one. Unlike the sale of manufactured goods or movie tickets, money does not necessarily flow between countries when they use each other’s cuisines. An Italian restaurant in China could use entirely Chinese made products to make their carbonara. It is also difficult to pin down exactly what encompasses a cuisine. Should Nacho Fries at Taco Bell be considered Mexican food or American?

Still, it is interesting exercise to consider which country’s food have most spread around the world, as they are an important measure of foreign cultural influence, argues the study’s author Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota. Waldfogel uses data from market research firm Euromonitor and hotel and restaurant review site TripAdvisor to estimate cuisine trade.

The research only looks at food eaten outside the home, as data on cuisines eaten inside the house are not available. It is based on the number of restaurants that serve that cuisine, according to how they are listed on TripAdvisor. Waldfogel uses this as a proxy for that cuisine’s popularity, because actual sales at those restaurants are not available. Given the various limitations of the research, the study is more a thoughtful attempt to come up with an estimate than a definitive statement.

The data show that in the 17 countries for which Waldfogel was able to obtain comprehensive data for 2017, Italian food was one of the three most popular cuisines in in 16 of those countries—the exception is South Korea, where it is fourth, after Korean, Chinese and Japanese. He estimates that Italy “exported” about $176 billion of its cuisine to the rest of the world. With $115 billion in exports, China is a distant second. The US ranks 7th, just below Mexico, with just $27 billion in exports.

If only Italy got royalties for all that pizza.