We talk a lot these days about the impact Big Food has had on our collective waistline: too much salt, sugar, and fat. Rarely, however, do we talk about the corollary of this: that at the same time food companies mastered the art of engineering flavors to make things like soda and chips irresistible, "real foods" like meats and produce have become increasingly bland.
Journalist Mark Schatzker tracks the unfortunate parallel rise of these events in his fascinating new book, The Dorito Effect. He makes the case that the conversation about obesity is missing any discussion of flavor. Added flavorings are "obesity-inducing food intoxicants," he writes: "The rise of obesity is the predictable result of the rise in manufactured deliciousness."
This may sound radical, but Schatzker backs up his theory with compelling research that will change how you think about food. In nature, flavor and nutrition go hand in hand; flavors are proxies for our nutritional requirements. Today, however, our food lies to us. Artificially flavored foods sometimes have the veneer of health, but are too often nutritionally bankrupt, he argues, delivering calories without satiating our bodies' needs. What's worse, these foods fool our sensory system — with detrimental results for our diets and bodies. "This is food that’s truly delicious in the moment, that has a lot of flavor because we put it there," he told Vox, "but it doesn't tell the kind of nutritional story that real food does."
I spoke to Schatzker about his fascinating theory: why he thinks flavor is key to human health, why technology might be able to fix our flavor problem, and how to navigate a world in which the things we eat aren't actually what they seem.
Julia Belluz: So why did you write a book about flavor?
Mark Schatzker: Because we've been having a frantic conversation about food for 50 years, no one ever talks about the way it tastes. I find the salt, sugar, fat thesis of obesity interesting, but I think it doesn't tell us the whole story only because salt, sugar, and fat existed in abundance in the 1950s when we were trim. Part of what's changed since is availability — corporations got really good at getting these foods to us. But it was the added flavoring that made these foods irresistible. Flavor technology got very powerful in the early 1960s, and it wasn't long after that that we began to see the startling increases in body mass index.
One thing I think brings home the importance of flavor is that the genes that write our flavor sensing equipment, the nose and mouth, take up more DNA than any other bodily system — more than your brain, more than your sex organs, more than your eyes.
From an evolutionary point of view, flavor is clearly very important. And when we experience the flavor of the food we eat, it engages more parts of the brain than any other behavior.
As far as highlighting how we’ve gotten the thinking wrong on food and our nutrient-obsessive approach, I think the best analogy is smoking. We know smoking is deadly because it causes cancer along with a host of other ailments. However, that’s how smoking kills people. The "why" smoking kills so many people is because nicotine is addictive. In other words, it’s the behavior. It’s nicotine’s effect on the part of the brain that experiences desire and moves us to do something we so often know we shouldn't.
And the same is true with food. The calories in food are what make us overweight and obese — and lead to so many of the associated morbidities — but flavor is what ignites our desire and leads us to these foods. Ask yourself this: How much soft drinks, potato chips, and tortilla chips would we eat if they weren’t flavored? The answer, I believe, is much, much less.
JB: You've picked up on something I think many people have ignored when they talk about obesity: Fruits and vegetables have become diluted, not only of flavor but of nutrition.
MS: All the good stuff we grow — tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce — has gotten continually more bland. This has been measured. They have become diluted of nutrients, as well. As we selected crops for agronomic traits like yield, shelf life and disease resistant, we never selected for flavor. And we lost flavor as a result. It's reverse evolutionary pressure.
Simultaneously, while those flavors were being lost at the farm level, we started producing them in factories and adding them to all sorts of things. We created flavors that were out of context. For tens of thousands of years, the only place we could get the taste of orange was from an orange. Then we created orange flavoring and suddenly we had orange pops, ice cream, candy. These flavored foods deliver deliciousness and calories, but they don't deliver a diversity of nutrients.
JB: Doritos were surprisingly important in your story on our changing relationship with food and flavor. Why did you single out these corn chips?
MS: Doritos started as a genius idea from the VP of sales and marketing at Frito-Lay named Arch West. He wanted to unleash tortilla chips on the market. The very first Doritos were just salted tortilla chips — and they failed. So he came up with idea to make them taste like taco.
Up to that point, only tacos tasted like tacos and tortilla chips tasted like corn. Thanks to the invention of the gas chromatograph, flavor scientists could finally figure out what flavor compounds were in tacos and then put those chemicals on tortilla chips. So that’s what they did. They put a dusting of flavorings on these tortilla chips, and people went crazy for them.
I don't think Arch West knew what an impact this would have on the food system. But Doritos became the model that all food would follow.
Now chicken has become like Doritos. Chicken is so incredibly bland, about 50 percent of the chicken we eat now is further processed. Chicken nuggets are like the Doritos of chicken. You grind the chicken into a paste, bread it, put flavoring on it, fry it. You're not tasting the chicken — the chicken is more a delivery vehicle of flavoring that was created by flavor scientists. This is incredibly deceptive on the cognitive level, but it's also messed up the palate.
JB: So nothing we eat is actually as it seems. I was pretty disturbed by your point in the book that even "natural flavorings" deceive us.
MS: The Food and Drug Administration allows natural flavorings to be labeled as such because of history. Forty years ago, most synthetic flavors were quote "artificial." Natural flavors were things like, say, the essential oil of cinnamon. I don't think food companies had the technology to make pure flavorings naturally; it was all artificial.
More recently, they developed the ability to make isolated flavoring chemicals in a "natural" way. It’s just a distortion of policy and a legal labeling framework.
Take a blueberry. Let's say there are 15 chemicals that give blueberries their distinctive, wonderful flavor. Well, nature’s an interesting place, and many plants and yeast share many of the same genes. So you can find one of these flavor chemicals in, say, bark, another compound in green grass, another in yeast.
If we want to get this blueberry flavoring from blueberries it would cost a fortune, because blueberries are expensive. But grass is cheap, bark is cheap, yeast is cheap. So flavor companies extract them using "natural means" — like acids, fermentation, and distillation. When the process is complete, you have a test tube full of pure chemicals, none of which came from an actual blueberry. Chemically speaking, these compounds are identical to an "artificial" blueberry flavoring. But the government says you can label it "natural." Most importantly, what you're not getting in that blueberry flavoring is all the other good stuff you get in blueberries — the vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, and so on.
JB: It sounds like we're veering into Food Babe territory. Are these chemicals actually bad for your health?
MS: I don't think they'll give you cancer or Alzheimer's or something — not directly at least.
The reason to be fearful of them is the effect they have on our behavior. These flavors make food more delicious than it deserves to be. Put that blueberry flavor in sugar water, and suddenly it's a delicious fruit drink that a child can't resist, and he's getting too many calories.
It also gives food the sheen of nutrition. It makes food tell a nutritional lie. Consider the beverage aisle. It's filled with all the different flavors. Soft drinks are all imitating real food. Lemon-lime, cola, orange soda. All these drinks really deliver is sugar water. It's interesting that no one would drink these things if not for the flavorings.
JB: In the past few years, you went from being someone who craved McDonald's to someone who craved broccoli. How did that change happen?
MS: I started to eat differently, not because I was on any kind of diet. When I was doing my book about steak, the [Michelin-starred] chef Alain Ducasse told me that cooking is the easy part, but the difficulty every chef faces is getting great ingredients.
After that, I started buying great steaks, then I expanded that to everything — carrots, tomatoes. I found my palate changed. I really started to not want the pizza or fast-food burger.
I became aware of how really, truly crappy you feel after some meals. I also found that my cravings changed. I used to hate broccoli, but then I developed this liking for broccoli that would sometimes become a craving.
JB: How exactly do you shop for food now?
MS: People need to shop like passionate Italian chefs. They need to care a lot about flavor, spend a lot of time on food — finding cucumbers that taste like cucumbers, tomatoes that taste like tomato — and the food is more satisfying. It's also a lot easier to cook.
If you start to see the words "artificial flavor" or "natural flavor," to me it’s the indicator of junk food. Don't worry about calories or carbs or fat — the best indicator of junk food is the addition of flavorings.
When you start to look for them, you see them everywhere. Soy milk, for example, has this clean reputation. But when you start to look, it has a huge amount of flavoring and sugar.
Yogurt, too. Most kids growing up today are used to really sweet yogurt. Some of those yogurt tubes come in fruit flavors, and they’re directed at moms trying to get a healthy snack for their kids. They have no fruit in them at all.
Michael Pollan [the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma] suggests avoiding anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. But the interesting thing to me is if you go back in time and give your grandmother some of the real food we eat now like cucumber or tomato, she wouldn't recognize them either. It tastes so watery.
JB: Instead of suggesting we need to return to simpler days, you argue that technology might actually be the fix here. Can you explain that?
MS: We can't go back to 1940s-style agriculture — well, very few of us can. As wonderful as that food tastes, it's extremely expensive, and we couldn't grow enough to feed all of us, even if we wanted to. When I was researching The Dorito Effect, I thought there was an absolute trade-off between quality and quantity. If you wanted delicious tomatoes, you wouldn't have many of them. This was very depressing, because it meant that only rich people would be able to afford truly delicious food.
What I discovered, however, is that we can get the flavor back into modern varieties of produce and still keep modern-day yields, disease resistance, and shelf life. We just need to care about flavor. And some plant breeders and scientists care. Already, the University of Florida has bred a tomato — it's non-GMO — that has the yield of a modern tomato and the flavor of an heirloom. This, to me, is such wonderful news. It means we can produce high-quality food that's affordable and accessible. We can make the produce at an ordinary supermarket more like what Alice Waters is serving at Chez Panisse.
My hope is that one day we grandparents tell our grandkids stories about how once upon a time, tomatoes were bland.