The Dorito Effect – A Book Review

In Book Reviews, Nutrition by James1 Comment

What do you know about flavor? How much do you value flavor? Why do we eat the food we eat? Hint: it has to do with flavor. Most people associate flavor with the word “taste.” “This tastes good. This doesn’t taste good.” “Food that is good for me tastes bad. Food that is bad for me tastes good.” For most, these are the boiled down thoughts people have when it comes to the topic of flavor. Mark Schatzker’s new book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor takes the reader into the world of flavor, looking at how people historically viewed and experienced flavor, and ultimately builds a compelling case that suggests flavor is the primary driver when it comes to ill-health and obesity. Flavor, he argues, is the foundational component to food choice which directly leads to health outcomes, and this has been overlooked until now. Since industrialized agriculture took hold we have been gradually diluting the flavor of our food, and with that a multi-billion dollar synthetic flavor industry has smartly emerged to fill what we have lost. In many ways we’ve demanded this with our dollars. But something unintended has happened, an unintended consequence. There has always been an intimate tie between flavor and nutrition, but modern food has obscured and nearly separated the two. The consequence?

By manipulating our richest and most direct source of pleasure, we have warped our relationship with the fuel our bodies require, food. We have taken a system designed to bring our bodies to a state of nutritional completion and turned it against us. Our problem isn’t calories and what our bodies do with them. Our problem is that we want to eat the wrong food. One day, we may look back on this obesity epidemic as a curious aberration in history when advances in analytic and synthetic chemistry outpaced our knowledge of psychology and nutrition.

What’s in the Book?

This book is not long, it’s a 275 page three-part page turner.

Part One: The Dorito Effect

1: “Things” and “Flavors”
2: Big Bland
3: Big Flavor
4: Big People

Part Two: If Food Could Talk

5: The Wisdom of Flavor
6: Bait and Switch
7: Fried Chicken Saved My Life!

Part Three: The Delicious Cure

8: The Tomato of Tomorrow
9: The Gospel According to Real Flavor

Highlights

History 

Food used to have “real” flavor. Time to time you might hear older, pre-World War II generation individuals reminiscing about when food had flavor. Usually this reminiscing is laughed off as incoherent ramblings of the elderly, but the truth of the matter is their memory is sharp when it comes to flavor. The fact is whole food staples like meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables used to taste much different than they do today. Jo Robinson talks about this history in great detail in her book  Eating on the Wild Side. This gradual dilution has resulted in much if not most of the flavor in our food being lost. Heritage breed meats used to grow at a slower rate, were consumed at an older age, and ate a forage based natural diet that yielded tremendous flavor -and as a result were packed with a higher variety and yield of nutrients. Flavor and nutrition go hand in hand. Very few people living today have experienced this type of flavor including myself, although it is available if you meet the right farmer. Mostly it can be found on white table cloth tables in gourmet restaurants.

We might pretend we’re interested in vitamins, fish oil, and ketosis, but it’s flavor we’re after. We think in flavor, we dream about flavor, and we get up out of our chair when the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth to get it. We eat for one reason: because we love the way food tastes. If you think of the human genome as an instruction manual with each bodily system having its own chapter, you will discover something quite unexpected. The thickest chapter is the one on flavor.

The Science 

The “Dorito Effect” as Schatzker’s describes is when food gets blander and technology gets better. Why do tomato’s taste like water soaked cardboard? The reason is on a genetic level tomatoes have been

The “Dorito Effect” as Schatzker’s describes is when food gets blander and technology gets better. Why do tomato’s taste like water soaked cardboard? The reason is on a genetic level tomatoes have been breed for attributes like yield, disease resistance, thick skin, and the genes that produce good flavor have been ignored. The good news is that it’s possible to breed the flavor back into tomatoes (Not via GMOs) and keep some of attributes of hardiness they were originally changed for. The bad news is there seems to be very little interest in the industry when it comes to flavor. As I mentioned a multi-billion dollar industry of synthetic flavor creators has filled the void in food flavor, and it currently dominates the food we eat with its creations. Here’s an interesting statistic:

In 1918, the average American sprinkled half a pound of spices on his or her meals over the course of a year. We know this because that’s the year the Department of Agriculture began keeping track of spice consumption. The year the Taco Dorito was launched, the number had tripled to one and a half pounds. By 1997, it hit three pounds, and today it’s at three and a half. It is an astonishing increase—500 percent. A hundred years ago, the average American could carry a year’s supply of spices in one hand. Today, she’d need a bucket.

Using highly sophisticated analytical technology, in particular gas chromatography, scientists isolated chemicals humans experience as flavor, and the companies they work for began manufacturing and selling them to food companies. The first commercial gas chromatography unit went on sale in 1955 and soon delta-dodecalactone, found in butter, was being added to margarine.

One after another, humans have captured the chemicals that characterize foods like apples, cherries, carrots, and beef and moved their production from plants and animals to factories. In 1965, there were less than 700 of these chemicals. Today, there are more than 2,200. The most recent additions are “mustard/horseradish/wasabi” (2-(methyl thio) ethyl acetate), “raw potato” (2-ethoxy-3-ethylpyrazine), and “balsamic vinegar” (Sclareol).

Health 

Since World War II we’ve been trying to figure out why people’s weight has exploded and what to do about it. As to the “why?” there’s been numerable cracks at the puzzle from higher standards of living and more food production, to increased sugar and processed food consumption. As for “what to do” there have been endless amounts of diet fads and recommendations. I think each theory does tell a piece of the story, but at the root of it all lies the phenomenon I believe Schatzker has discovered. It is the one thing that nutritionists and economists have over looked – flavor. Flavor, is the primary driver when it comes to health and food. As we have breed the flavor out of our food we have also lost the nutrients. Production has certainly advanced to the point that we can easily harvest millions of pounds of food, but what has replaced the calcium, magnesium and other phytonutrients that were sacrificed for efficiency and output? Each type of food tells a different story but mostly we’ve replaced nutrients with water and more carbohydrates. Eating is a behavior driven by an expectation of pleasure.

Flavor all comes down to one thing: feelings.

Why do people over eat and eat the wrong things? Fred Provenza believes the difference comes down to what he calls “deep satiety.” “Fundamentally,” he told me, “eating too much is an inability to satiate.” When food meets needs at “multiple levels,” it provides a feeling of “completeness” and offers a satisfaction that’s altogether different from being stuffed.

Flavor’s effects do not end at the mouth and nose. They have only just begun. There are taste receptors all through the digestive tract exactly like the ones in your mouth. Smell receptors are sensing down there. The digestive tract is not some blind extractor of nutrients. It has sensors the mouth and nose lack—fat sensors, protein sensors, bacteria sensors, hormone sensors, even plant-compound sensors. The gut is its own little chemical-sensing gourmand, tasting each bite and adjusting its processes accordingly. You don’t taste what your gut tastes, but it does affect your feelings.

Flavor

If we want to understand flavor’s function Schatzker points out we must get to the root and ask the fundamental question: Why do things have flavor in the first place? The answer is: flavor is information. Fred Provenza, a researcher Schatzker spent time with while researching the book, noted that flavors are like labels, they are chemical tags an organism uses to identify and remember what it has eaten. The same is true all across the animal kingdom – to a parasitic wasp, cis-3-hexenol means, “The caterpillar is over here,” to a plant it means, “We are under attack,” and to a human it is a critical flavor note in the label for “strawberry.” Humans are designed by nature to seek flavor. The pleasure provided by food we experience is flavor, and in nature there is an intimate connection between flavor and nutrition. Synthetic flavor technology not only breaks that connection, it confuses our bodies. Fake flavors make foods that have very similar nutritional profiles seem more different than they actually are. Flavor is at the root of our food choices, and we all know our food choices dictates our health. Flavor is the driver, and when you dilute the flavor out of food and add artificial flavors to nutrient deplete foods our body makes false associations and we become addicted to unhealthy foods.

Imagine a growing child with a surging thiamin (vitamin B1) requirement eating a bowl of Fruit Loops with Fruity Shaped Marshmallows. This breakfast cereal is just as much of a contrivance as Provenza’s experiments, featuring a whole bunch of “enriched” nutrients married to a synthetic flavoring, along with a whack load of sugar and marshmallows. Not only could the added thiamin be making that child form an even stronger flavor preference to a very sugary cereal, the child has no incentive to form an attachment to a food that is naturally rich in thiamin (cauliflower comes to mind).

In the book there are numerous studies with animals and even one six year experiment with babies that show when given a free choice, whole food selection, that animals and humans (young babies and children with unaltered palates) choose wisely and eat less.  When food stuffs are mixed together and vitamin enriched animals keep eating, as do humans, and develop an unhealthy relationship to unhealthy food. Nature has designed us to use flavor to select certain foods when our bodies need specific nutrients, and stop eating when we’ve received enough of what we need. When we mix everything together and mask the flavor we are essentially fooled, and ultimately pay the price with our health. The idea that we can replicate nature in a laboratory sounds nice, but we are far from it at this point in history as much as some would like to believe.

An actual strawberry is a masterpiece of flavor engineering, the food equivalent of a car that gets five hundred miles per gallon. Humans don’t know how to create deliciousness on such a measly calorie budget. Nature has mastered the art of hedonic density—food that maximizes pleasure and minimizes calories, but we aren’t anywhere close. We think the problem with processed food is that it’s loaded with too many chemicals, but the truth is that it doesn’t have nearly enough.

 

Final Thoughts of a Wannabe Farmer

If the thesis of this book is true it could be a game changer for health care and food production. There is no doubt that people seek out satisfying flavor in the foods they eat, and the idea that people can regain and maintain their health by eating food that tastes amazing should get everyone’s attention. The good news is people have been moving in this direction for several years now with the farm to table and eat local movements. There are a lot of people who want to eat this way but simply do not have access to this kind of food. In economic terms this is demand with little supply. However, more and more farmers are filling these demand holes and eventually there will be a tipping point. I believe a tipping point is approaching in health care with costs on the rise and freedom of choice diminishing. I think with rising healthcare costs people are going to turn to prevention, and what better way to prevent ill-health than by eating the flavorful foods we were designed to eat and enjoy? Similar tipping points are coming in industrial agriculture. Subsidy programs that keep grain coming in from all over the country that is fed to livestock and dilute the flavor of meat are not sustainable. Instead using thousands of acreage to grow corn and soy and then ship it across the country to massive environmental damaging feed lots and facilities, that land can be turned into pasture and animals can grow the way nature designed them to grow – to be nutrient dense flavor bombs. People vote with their dollars and more and more people are choosing flavorful healthy foods.  The primary question I try to keep in mind is: How can I add value to the world? Value is something people want and work to obtain. As a farmer I can see no better way to add value than to provide tremendous flavor and nutrition to people.  There is a massive hole in the market for this now, and I hope more and more individuals jump in and fill the growing demand.

Last year, more than a billion dollars in Label Rouge chickens were eaten in France. Tomato growers of Florida take note: There is money in flavor. We can begin growing all the food we need, and it can be flavorful and fulfilling in the way the human animal desires it to be. Technology got us into this mess, and technology can get us out. The rest is up to us. If consumers demand real flavor, and if they pay a little bit more for it, then real flavor is what they will get. It’s already happened with wine. It’s already happened with craft beer. Let’s make it happen with food.

This is one of the best, if not the best book I’ve read on nutrition and food. I endorse reading the full book more so than any other book in the same category I have reviewed. It’s opened up a new way of looking at food that I think is the way to approach the problem. If you want to read it you can get it on Amazon here. The link is an affiliate link so you know.

Here is Mark Schatzker promoting the book on CBS. The interview fleshes out some ideas not covered in the book review

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