The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor
By Mark Schatzker
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
Since the 1960s, Americans have spent a lot of time and money on weight loss. Between 1989 and 2012, we spent around one trillion dollars. So…how are we doing? Well, obesity is up fifty percent. Extreme obesity has doubled. It’s going about as well as the wars on cancer, drugs and poverty. We are not just losing the battle, we’re getting our increasingly bulbous butts kicked.
One particularly vexing issue is that people are not only making bad food choices, many are gorging themselves even when they are not hungry. There may have been isolated cases of this in history but never on the scale we see now. People have always liked to eat, but they stopped when they were full. Now, many don’t. What happened? Why can’t we eat just one potato chip, Dorito or Twinkie? Why do we slam down a half-gallon of Häagen-Dazs in twenty minutes?
Various nutritional villains have played musical chairs over the years. Saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and sugar have all been popular scapegoats. Each has taken the lead at different times until more science comes along to restart the musical chair chorus. This book takes a close look at a couple of factors that have been lurking just outside of popular scrutiny.
First, food production has been taken over by corporations that care more about making money than anything else. How do you make more money producing chickens, tomatoes, apples and grapes? Make bigger chickens, tomatoes, apples and grapes. Producers have succeeded at that in a big way. The chicken of the twenty-first century is a bloated behemoth compared to the chicken of one hundred years ago. The same is true for many other foods.
While size has expanded impressively, taste and nutrition have not. Nutrition and taste are closely related, so it is not surprising that both have actually declined in many foods. Julia Child lived through that period of nutrition and taste decline and commented that really good chicken shouldn’t need all kinds of spices, seasonings and sauces. Good chicken should stand on its own, but modern chicken tastes like teddy bear stuffing. I have noticed that smaller fruits do taste better than bigger versions. For a long time I thought it was just some personal delusion, but this book confirms my impression.
Second, with a food supply now pumped up with tasteless water and carbs, the food industry had to fix the flavor problem. Technology, of course, is the answer. That’s the American way. This book explains the huge effort, genius and technology behind artificial flavors. They can actually make the bland slop grown on factory farms taste good. This may be a great technical achievement, but it has created new problems.
Eating and digestion involve a complex sequence of interactions and feedback loops that depend on specific food ingredients to work correctly. When those ingredients are not there, it shouldn’t be a huge shock that things go wrong. How do we fix that? The answer is more technology. Synthetic vitamins, fake fat. Yum! The book makes an interesting counterintuitive observation about people who have all they could ever want to eat. It turns out that endless indulgence in your favorite food does not lead to happiness but to misery.
I have this crazy idea (and Schatzker seems to agree) that going back to real food might be a better answer. Personally, I find Doritos to be the most revolting, disgusting and nasty food-like substance on this planet. Obviously a lot of people disagree. Be that as it may, the book’s title is catchy and amusing. Schatzker’s skilled writing holds a reader’s attention even when he is explaining a long and complex history. I don’t recommend the book for detailed nutritional advice, but it covers the topic of counterfeit food extremely well and I give it a thumbs UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2018.