In The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor (Simon & Schuster, 2015, $32.50), Mark Schatzker starts off with some uplifting genesis stories from the food industry, like how Weight Watchers grew from one woman’s addiction to cookies, and how Doritos arose from one man’s inspiration to give “a simple fried piece of corn the tang and savory depth of a Mexican meal.” Schatzker claims this was the start of flavour technology making the leap into new territory by blurring the lines between a flavour and a thing. This was when flavouring itself could be listed as an ingredient on the Doritos package to encapsulate the essence of a taco, nacho cheese, or cool ranch dressing in one vague word. “The birth of Doritos was a watershed moment,” writes Schatzker. “Flavor wasn’t up to Mother Nature anymore. Now it was in the hands of the folks in marketing.”
But even more than marketing, flavour was becoming controlled by science. Biologically, certain flavours are craved by our bodies and appeased through our tongues. As Schatzker writes, “We eat for one reason: because we love the way food tastes. Flavor is the original craving.” It becomes far more complex now that technology can now trick our brains into thinking that a real taco and a taco Dorito taste the same, even though the second one comes from a chemical recipe. At the same time chemicals were expanding flavour horizons, there was a contrasting demise of naturally flavourful food; Schatzker’s prime examples are chicken and tomatoes that do not taste like they used to. This bland food was being retaliated against with an excessive use of artificial flavours to bring flavour back.
Even with other uplifting food stories, like McCormick Company spice buyers procuring exotic spices from around the world, the book is mostly an attack on processed food and how it has spoiled the flavour party. Spices themselves are only used to enhance natural foods that have become flavourless. In another artificial flavour breakthrough, as pivotal as the Dorito effect, McCormick was responsible for concocting a chemical formula to imitate vanilla that formerly came from tropical orchids in Madagascar. It was just another example of how technology can make a cheaper, fake version of an expensive, exotic flavour. From that moment on, Schatzker writes: “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.” Hundreds of these human-made flavours from McCormick’s laboratories are fooling our taste buds and brains into experiencing the real thing.
Schatzker addresses how cravings for sugar, salt, and fat, infused in so much processed food, have caused an obesity epidemic. “Humans do not bumble through the world and eat the wrong food by accident,” Schatzker writes, “We like the wrong food.” But we also like the right food. We do crave mangoes or bananas, and reverting back to authentic versions of real flavour from natural products is one way to battle obesity. When flavour is truly satisfying, a completely new level of satiety is reached that can actually quell overeating. Flavour and nutrition can be inextricably linked if our bodies are getting the right vitamins and minerals from natural food — we will not be hungry and we will not try to fill the void with more empty calories (that we have been tricked into thinking taste good). For example, Schatzker writes, “Of all the four hundred aromatic compounds in tomatoes, there are twenty that seduce us into eating this luscious red fruit, and every single one of them is made from things our bodies need.” Schatzker proposes that when we invest the same type of attention to extracting the best flavour from chicken, strawberries, and tomatoes, as we have with wine for centuries and craft beer more recently, then food will not lack flavour, nutritional needs will be met, and the collective health of humanity will improve.
Darin Cook works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and is a regular contributor to eatdrink.