doritobook+photoA friend of mine recommended this book to me. He’s not a dietitian. He’s a geologist who knows a lot about shale and hydraulic fracking. But like me, he loves to eat. He found The Dorito Effect a fascinating read and let me borrow his copy.

The book’s author, Mark Schatzker, is a food journalist who also loves to eat. He tells many true tales about a lot of different types of food lovers. There’s the overeater who discovered Weight Watchers, the kid who entered the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, and of course, Arch West – the guy who created the Dorito.

In 1962 while on a family road trip, Arch West sampled some tortilla chips at a Mexican snack shack in Southern California. He thought he could take this simple triangular corn chip, and make it taste like the whole taco. The result? The first Dorito: Taco Flavor was on store shelves by 1966.

“The food problem is a flavor problem. Why you can’t eat just one.”

Schatzker’s creates his hypothesis – The Dorito Effect- with a very thoughtful presentation of how flavor may be a primal part of satiety, and the loss of flavor in whole foods is why flavor-seeking humans turn to flavor-boosted food, and then can’t stop eating it due to a “void” that it does not fill. “The Dorito Effect” implies adding flavors to foods or beverages that wouldn’t naturally be paired to those foods (a corn chip flavored to be a complete taco, but not equivalent in satisfaction to the real taco). His hypothesis explores how all mammals are flavor-seeking creatures, describing research in which goats, sheep and cows will overeat when their food is laced with appealing flavors.

He presents that while raising chickens and livestock has changed to meet the needs of a growing population and variable natural resources, these changes inadvertently resulted in a loss of complex flavors in the foods. Therefore, the flavor industry was created to address the bland food. He uses chicken as the most notable example (today’s chicken tastes only like what you season it with – and spice consumption has increased 5-fold). A similar flavor loss has occurred with produce that’s been bred to withstand adverse weather, pests and travel.

He notes that for the past 50 years we’ve made the food people should eat more of (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed meats), taste less delicious.  Meanwhile, we’ve been making the foods we should be eating less of, even more delicious by adding layers and layers of flavors (think Jalapeno Ranch; Sundried Tomato & Basil; Blazin’ Buffalo or Smoky Chipotle).

Eat like an Italian

It’s funny because I have often thought about writing a book titled, Eat like an Italian, and Schatzker makes a few mentions about how Italians eat. All of my grandparents were born in Italy. My mother was born in 1925; my grandmother in 1896. These two women had the biggest influence on both my palate and my cooking skills. Growing up we ate dandelions and escarole (perhaps nurturing my tolerance for bitter flavors). Fresh cherries, peaches, plums, and pears grew on trees in my backyard. Fresh tomato sauce simmered on the stove every Sunday (made from the tomatoes grown in the garden the summer before), and the only jelly I put on my toast came from the concord grapes my grandfather grew in his backyard. I remember numerous times over my lifetime when my mother or grandmother made mention of how “chicken doesn’t taste like it used to” and how “you can’t buy a good tomato anymore”. My son, who doesn’t like tomatoes, loved the ones I encouraged him to eat on our first trip to Italy last summer – because they tasted the way tomatoes should taste, bold and sweet. Interestingly, The Dorito Effect uses both of these foods as prime examples of flavor losses over time.

Flavor and Nutrition are Intimately Connected

Perhaps what I found most intriguing about this read, is the idea that there is a connection between nutrition and flavor – that perhaps the biochemical changes that have occurred in these foods, results in a different flavor profile. In other words, it may be the amounts of ascorbic acid, flavonols, or omega-3 fatty acids themselves that help create or intensify flavors in plants (and the animals that eat them). The result – more flavor, more satisfaction, and we naturally know when to stop eating.

Ironically, unlike so many other journalists (and some health professionals) who are constantly telling you that “sugar is toxic” (or a similar fear-based statement), Schatzker states that we overeat items such as soft drinks and junk food (chips, crackers) because they are so NON-toxic!

The author dives deeper into his flavor hypothesis describing the natural mechanisms mammals have to avoid overindulging in toxic plants. Unlike the potential toxicity of plants, we don’t control our intake of junk foods because there is no natural mechanism present in them to make us stop eating. He suggests that it’s this “potential toxicity” in nature that allows mammals to enjoy eating plants, and naturally stop eating them when they’ve had enough.

So while the flavor industry created synthetic (and some “natural”) flavorings to replace the loss of flavors in the natural food supply, these flavors are sometimes paired up as they wouldn’t naturally occur (pineapple-flavored yogurt, vanilla flavored cereal), and these synthetic flavors don’t satisfy our primal needs.

When a strawberry is bitter, or a tomato is bland, we tend to consume less of them (or drown them in Ranch dressing). Schatzker believes that since we still crave the flavors, and we can’t get satisfied by eating the real food, we are always looking elsewhere, ending up with “strawberry-flavored yogurt” or “tomato basil crackers”.

Of course satisfying your yen for strawberries with a “fruit bar” doesn’t provide the body with the same nutrient package as what the fresh strawberry itself brings. A real strawberry provides over 25 nutrients including vitamins C, A, potassium, and literally thousands of phytochemicals. There’s really no way to reproduce this synthetically (which is why most dietitians believe in “food first” – eating a variety of foods, instead of depending on a vitamin-mineral supplement). On top of that, there is the calorie issue. The real strawberry, at only about 0.32 calories per gram, compared to the 5 calories per gram in a strawberry-flavored snack food, is a better bet for your waistline.

“Technology got us into this mess, technology can get us out.”

Final Word:

The Dorito Effect is a thought-provoking read. Obesity is more complex than one single cause, but this book may help you ponder the flavored foods you put in your grocery cart and motivate you to stay more mindful as you eat. What I applaud about this book is that unlike the writings of many food journalists and opinion-writers, Schatzker does not dwell in negativity and does not point a big finger at the food industry, nor agriculture. He includes some good science in the book, but his writing style doesn’t focus on mind boggling scientific terms or any strong political leanings – he simply tells a great story. The issue of flavor loss is documented, and the agricultural industry is looking into how to stay productive while naturally returning some of the nutrients and flavors to foods. While I don’t believe flavor is the only thing driving the obesity epidemic, it certainly may be part of the problem. Give it a go and let me know what your thoughts are.