“Mmm, tastes like chicken.”
It’s become a cliché—ask someone to try just about any new meat, and they’re likely to tell you it tastes like chicken. Why chicken?
Well, maybe it’s because chicken doesn’t taste much like chicken anymore. In The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor, Mark Schatzker explains why.
It’s no secret that the United States has a serious nutrition problem. Despite a national obsession with eliminating one “bad” ingredient after another (sugar, fat, carbs, gluten) and a multibillion-dollar dieting and weight-loss industry, we still lead the world in a whole pack of nutrition-related health problems. And while the food on grocery-store shelves has been fortified with whole grains and antioxidants, the produce section is full of tasteless pink tomatoes and lackluster lettuce. So what’s the deal?
The problem, Schatzker says, is that we’ve traded nature’s flavors for factory-produced flavorings—and, as it turns out, we literally don’t know what we’re missing.
To explain, Schatzker begins with a history of Doritos. While on a family vacation to the Southwest in 1962, Arch West, a marketer for Frito-Lay, tried tortilla chips. He wondered if they could be the next big snack. They sold, but not all that well—until West, who was friends with the owner of Lawry’s seasoning, asked his team to make the chips “taste like a taco.” Though his bosses accused him of “not knowing the difference between a ‘thing’ and a ‘flavor,’” the chips were indeed the next big hit—and they launched a massive industry based on producing flavors that would make things taste like other things.
This, of course, is a major foundation of American industrial food: If you like grapes, you’ll love grape soda. If you like tacos, you’ll love taco-flavored Doritos.
But the industry didn’t stop there. Instead, manufacturers began making things taste like themselves. They had a problem, which was that food was getting more and more bland. Industrial farming techniques meant that chickens, pigs, and other livestock were eating not grass and bugs and hay, but bland feed mixes designed to fatten them as quickly as possible. Dairy cows produce an average of 70 pounds of milk a day, compared to 16 pounds in 1948, often without ever stepping into a pasture. Tomatoes—like many vegetables and fruits—were being selected not for their flavor, but for their ability to survive a week in a refrigerated truck while being shipped across country. As a result, flavor suffered.
So the flavor industry stepped in. Have you ever wondered what “natural flavoring” is? You might want to wonder—after all, you eat lots of it. “In 1918,” Schatzker tells us, “the average American sprinkled half a pound of spices on his or her meals over the course of a year.” Today, it’s three and a half pounds, and that doesn’t just come on “spiced” foods—“natural flavorings” are in the plainest meats in the supermarket. When chicken doesn’t taste “chickeny” enough, the flavor industry steps in:
“The real reason food companies keep jacking spices and taking aim at specific [flavor] receptors is that we need them to. Chicken is different now. Tomatoes are different now. Corn, pork, wheat, strawberries . . . All food is different. It’s been diluted,” Schatzker argues. “What else could explain the fact that the same industry that started adding flavor chemicals to margarine to make it taste more like butter is now adding flavor chemicals to actual butter?”
We’re making up for the dilution of our food by adding more salt, more sugar, and flavor chemicals of astonishing accuracy. These, Schatzker explains, began as rough substitutions, like vanillin for real vanilla, but the invention of a technique called gas chromatography made it possible in the 1950s for food scientists to figure out just what chemical compounds gave foods their flavor—and then reproduce that flavor in the lab. Today, “palantants” appear in nearly all mass-produced food, reproducing the flavors human bodies crave.
That was a game-changer. “For thousands of years, the flavor of orange could be experienced only via the seasonal, perishable spheres of fiber, juice, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants called oranges. Now you could order “orange” by phone and add it to soft drinks, popsicles, yogurt, or gum.” Aromas and textures, too, could be manipulated.
But here’s the thing: Nature is complex. Really complex. More complex than we know.
We know, for example, that methyl anthranilate tastes like grapes, and we can make grape soda taste just like grapes (except sweeter). We can even add antioxidants and vitamins to grape soda. But we can only add the nutrients we know about—and, as Schatzker notes, “in an actual grape there are too many to count.” Plants are full of fiber, vitamins, and what are known as “secondary compounds”—thousands of naturally occurring chemicals with nutritional and medicinal effects we’ve only just begun to explore—but when we dilute them by producing varieties that are mostly water, we dilute not just their flavor but their nutritional value. Our bodies, like those of animals, crave these compounds and are wired to seek out foods that contain them.
When we imitate nature’s flavors, though, we fool our bodies. We get the flavor, but we don’t get the nutrients—so we keep eating, unsatisfied. “You can fool the tongue,” Schatzker writes, “but you can’t fool the body.” We flavor our food the same way we flavor cigarettes. The health consequences are dramatic.
So what do we do? The simple answer is to eat “real food”—heirloom tomatoes and chickens, varieties of plants and animals that predate industrial farming and are grown sustainably. The problem with this, of course, is that in a system geared toward cheap groceries, real food is wildly expensive. Schatzker argues that the only way to change this is through consumer demand. Get those amazing real flavors out there, and no one will want anything else—and Big Food will have no choice but to give consumers what they want. “If there’s money in real flavor,” he tells us, “they will give people real flavor.”
It’s hard to say whether Schatzker’s solution can overcome the economic pressures of a massive global system, but his identification of the problem is perceptive and useful. He’s also an excellent writer—it’s hard to talk about flavonoids and chemical palantants in a way that’s engaging and vivid, but The Dorito Effect manages to be a page-turner. Once you read it, you’ll never look at “natural flavorings” the same way again.
The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker, 260 pp., $27, Simon & Schuster, 2016