I recently picked up the book “The Dorito Effect – The surprising new truth about food and flavor” by Mark Schatzker and it was a fantastic read!! I devoured the book in a couple of days. It had lots of interesting information regarding the concept of flavor. Plus the author has a very interesting way of writing, which makes it read like a novel rather than a non fiction book.
Here are the top highlights from the book. If you love reading about food and food science, then there is a good chance you will love the book as much as I did.
Thing vs Flavor
In the first chapter, we are introduced to Arch West, the vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay, who pitches the idea of selling tortilla chips to the company’s executives. He comes up with a clever Mexican name for it – Doritos, which mean little pieces of gold. The first iteration of the chip does not sell well. Why? It was plain salted tortilla chips. Mexicans are used to dipping the chips in fresh, flavorful salsas. But making fresh salsas was not an option for a food manufacturing company. Arch did not give up. He knew that if he could impose the flavor of a taco on a tortilla, then the thing (chip) will be = flavor (tacos). Dorito sales take off after this and now you have 14 or more flavors of doritos including cool ranch, nacho cheese, etc.
Thing vs Flavor is a concept that Schatzker talks about repeatedly. In nature, you have an orange taste like orange or banana tastes like banana. However, with the development of flavors, we can now get barbecue-flavored chips (that have the smoky sweet notes, without actually being barbecued) and we wash it down with soft drinks that taste like orange or grapes or lemons even though the foods contain none of these things!!
Why does it matter? Because as we grow more and more food in the planet, our foods are getting blander. Meanwhile our flavor technology is getting extremely good. So, we are taking a human body which has an in-built system to seek nutrition, and overriding that mechanism with synthetically flavored food.
Foods are getting blander and less nutritious
Every house will have an old uncle or aunt who lament “Back in those days, the vegetables were so tasty and nutritious…” Unfortunately Schatzker has data which may prove your uncle was right (Welp, sorry!). A study in the British Food journal compared fruits and vegetables in the 1930’s and the 1980’s and found that calcium was down by 19%, iron down by 22% and potassium by 14%. A biochemist by the name Donal Davis thought that they may not have accounted for moisture and ran the numbers again. Again, they found similar results – back in the1950’s cauliflower had twice as much thiamin, kale had twice as much riboflavin, and asparagus had thrice Vit C.
This is not only a result of intensive farming, there is genetic dilution happening. Farmers select produce that are shelf stable, looks great, handles transportation; basically all the parameters except nutrition and flavor. The exact same concept happens with animal meat like chickens, beef, pork, etc. In 1923, for a chicken to reach “broiler” status, it took 16 weeks. By 1943, a similar chicken was heavier by 12 weeks. By 1973, it was down to 8.5 weeks.
Schatkzer lays the argument that as early as 1917, cooks claimed that birds that are “unnaturally mothered, fed and fattened” may look appealing, but tastes pretty flavorless. Owing to this lack of flavor there are chicken fried recipes now calling for 10+ ingredients to make them delicious.
Artificial flavors developed to make bland foods addictive
Sometimes, some innovations start off being a necessity. Madagascar, a major exporter of vanilla, was undergoing a major political crisis in 1975. Vanilla production dropped dramatically, on top of which the government was destroying any buffer stock left to rise prices even higher. McCormick, a spice company, whose cash cow product was vanilla then started to develop a formulated variation of artificial Vanilla.
How do the companies reverse engineer a naturally available flavor? They add a drop of the natural extract to a Gas Chromatography machine that breakdowns all the components and prints out all the chemicals in a graph format. But this is not an easy science. They have to combine different chemicals before reaching a concoction that can trick a sophisticated quality control specialist – our NOSE! For example, natural vanilla has around 100’s of compounds, imitation vanilla has about 30, which is why some people can detect cheap vanilla tastes easily. What started as a necessity is now a major contributor to making foods addictive.
There are now a database of about 2200 chemicals that when combined in a formula can imitate foods – be it strawberry, pineapple, chicken or tacos. I found this line “You can now experience mint-iness without a single leaf of mint” a powerful line in the book.
Foods so delicious that it never makes you happy
All these flavor developments are making addictive foods that make us miserable. MRI of overweight people were studied by the University of Oregon to understand food cravings. They found out that overweight people craved foods like milkshakes more, but they did not experience any more happiness than normal people did. In fact the more they needed to drink more doses to feel satisfied. Food addicted brains are not happy brains.
I don’t want to give away too much about the book. But there is a chapter on goats you don’t want to miss. Schatzker also explains why the natural flavors in plants are so important. Each of them are there to perform a function, some function as antioxidants, some provide Vitamin C, etc… But we are yet to understand the entirety of their importance.
A very simple example he gives is that – you give a kid water + sugar and they will say it tastes disgusting. But add a drop of orange essence and it becomes refreshing. Why? The body thinks it is getting Vitamin C in the form of orange and is eager to assimilate that, instead it gets something else completely different.
The last chapter alone, I felt was a bit random and off-topic for me, with the author documenting his search for real foods full of flavor and nutrition. But other than that, it was a great read.
Whether you agree with the premise or not, Schatzker has definitely brought some very interesting concepts to think about. Have you read this book? What are your thoughts on the growing list of flavors? Please comment below! I would love to hear from you!
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