Better Off Well


The Dorito Effect: How It's Changing Our Health

Dorito Effect

Feed hay to a group of sheep and they will eat until they are nutritionally satisfied. Flavor that hay with a palatant - a chemical flavor enhancer- and the sheep eat 15% more than they did before. This phenomenon is what drives the livestock industry to flavor their corn and soy feed. After all, pigs that eat more fatten quickly. Time, as they say, is money.

It's not only the livestock industry that uses this flavor technology, however. Companies like Gifford Labs and McCormick have been flavoring human food for decades. Flavor is what we do best, claims Da Vinci Gourmet.

For more than a decade we have been making your coffee more flavorful, making your mochas creamier, sweetening your favorite desserts, and tempting you with our gourmet confections. We never stop looking for new ways to expand your flavor experience like spicing things up with our new Chai tea.

The very technology that has turned eating habits into a science is what brings us Cinnamon Bun Oreos, Garden Salsa Sun Chips, and Dr. Pepper Barbecue Sauce.

Oh, and yes, Doritos. Doritos, in fact, were one of the first chemically flavored foods and it was only after the added flavoring that sales of Doritos skyrocketed, eventually placing it firmly among the top chip brands today, with over a billion dollars in sales for 2015 alone.

But what happens when foods treated with flavors that made sheep eat more is fed to humans?

I'm guessing you know the answer to that.

Mark Schatzker is an award-winning author and journalist who believes the obesity, diabetes, and heart disease epidemic cannot be explained away by carbs and fat. In The Dorito Effect, Schatzker takes us in for a compelling journey through the science of flavoring, the concept of inherent nutritional wisdom, and the impact of conventional farming on nutrient and flavor content that, along with advances in flavor technology, are changing taste buds and brain patterns.

The Dorito Effect, Schatzer illustrates, is influencing our eating behaviors, often without our knowledge and sometimes against our own will.

Here, Mark answers a few questions about what he learned while researching The Dorito Effect...

Mark, I found that every man I talked with about this book begged me, on hands and knees, to not tell him he shouldn't eat Doritos. It seems that The Dorito Effect, then, was the perfect title for your book and a great example of an addictive food. I wonder if the reason you started with Doritos had anything to do with your own personal addiction?

My own relationship with Doritos is no different. If I pass by a bowl of Doritos and don’t eat any, I’m fine. But if I have one, it’s game over — I head back for more, no matter how hard I resist. The strange thing about Doritos is I don’t actually like them that much. I don’t savor them the way I might savor a great ale or a piece of dark chocolate. This craving lights up in me that I can’t seem to put out. We’ve all been there. And what is perhaps most disturbing about this is that it mirrors certain aspects of food addiction. The neuroscience of food addiction shows that food addicts don’t like food more than healthy eaters — they desire it more. They experience an outsized want for food that isn’t satisfied by food when they eat — so they keep eating more.

But that’s not why I called the book The Dorito Effect. What most people don’t know is that the original Doritos were just salted tortilla chips, and they didn’t sell particularly well. It wasn’t until the addition of taco flavoring that Doritos became the smash hit we know them to be. The birth of Doritos illustrates the power of flavor chemicals to induce us to eat food we would ordinarily leave alone. Thanks to those flavorings, a snack people didn’t want became a snack people could not stop eating.

While it wasn't a surprise that studies measuring nutrients in today's produce show fewer nutrients overall than 60 years ago, it was fascinating to learn that these nutrients are responsible for flavor and so our produce- and meat- offered today is much more bland because of this. Based on your research, is this the same for organically grown food?

If you look at the scientific literature where they’ve tested organic for better flavor and/or nutrition, the results are all over the map. Some studies find there is a difference, many find that there is not. So the simple answer is... maybe. But the truth is, the word “organic” is no guarantee of quality or purity. I’ve had organic tomatoes that brought me close to tears of joy, but I’ve also had organic tomatoes that tasted like cardboard.

One of the ways we’ve dumbed produce down is through breeding — we keep selecting varieties of fruits and vegetables that produce the biggest crops, have the longest shelf life, are resistant to disease, and so forth. Every time we select these traits and ignore flavor, we lose flavor. So if you take a modern tomato that has lost the genetic potential for flavor, it doesn’t matter how lovingly and tenderly and organically you grow it, it just won’t have any flavor.

While natural foods are becoming more bland, processed foods are exploding with ever more variety of synthetic combinations of flavor. It gets hard for natural food to compete. What do you suggest people do if they are transitioning back to a whole foods, healthy kind of eating?

The first thing people should do is look at the label. If you see “artificial flavor” or “natural flavor” in the ingredient panel, then you know synthetic flavor chemicals have been added. I think they’ll be surprised at how prevalent the use of synthetic flavors has become. You don’t just find them in soft drinks and chips — they’re in pasta sauces, frozen pizzas, frozen burgers, chicken strips, and soy milk. And there’s a lot of fruity yogurts these days that contain very little fruit yet still taste remarkably like, say, blueberry or raspberry. The effect is the same as with those original taco flavored Doritos — you eat more than you otherwise would.

But people should also care more about the quality of the whole foods we buy. Consider paying a little bit more for tomatoes that taste better. I know I just said that organic is no guarantee of quality, but I can also tell you that the organic carrots at my supermarket taste way better than the regular carrots, which are amazingly bland. We are genetically wired to crave delicious, flavorful food. So it isn’t just important to eat healthy food — that food has to taste delicious.

In your book, you describe the process many restaurants use prior to serving your plate of food. You write that "most restaurant chefs are 'chefs' the way someone assembling an IKEA bookshelf is a 'carpenter'". Most of the time, foods are simply partially cooked or reheated, but marketed with terms like "freshly baked". I could see this happening in chain restaurants, but you say it happens in many others as well. Is there a way the average consumer could find out about best kitchen practices before heading out for restaurant eats?

The truth is, without doing a forensic ingredient audit on the kitchen, it’s hard to know. Look at the menu. If you see lots of generic food like chicken fingers, quesadillas, and caesar salad, there’s a better than good chance these items are not being made from scratch in house. If the chicken wings taste like every other chicken wing you’ve ever eaten, you might ask yourself why. Chefs that actually cook usually want you to know, and they’ll do so by offering interesting daily specials, and so forth.

I love the idea that "flavor is information". All animals have an intuitive wisdom about what foods to eat, and you refer to a variety of studies that prove this in your book. I find that when I stick with whole foods, I tend to feel full more quickly and for longer periods of time. Does this happen for you as well?

Definitely. I am constantly amazed at how unsatisfying junk food is, and how deeply satisfying real food is. One particular food I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is whole wheat bread. I find the the loaves in the store spongey and bland. They have that "whole wheat" flavor my kids hate, and I also can’t stand. I don’t know how it is they’ve managed to so utterly ruin whole wheat, but I suspect all those dough conditioners in the ingredient label have something to do with it. For the past few years, I’ve been making long-fermented whole wheat loaves at home. The flavor is incredible — so good, you almost wonder why it ever occurred to someone to eat white bread. My kids love it, too. The other night, my daughter described the flavor as “magic.” And, as you pointed out, it’s not only delicious to eat, it keeps you satisfied. You could never mindlessly eat good bread, the same way you could never mindlessly eat dark chocolate — two squares is enough.

Based on what you write, it sounds like the key is to eat a variety of whole foods throughout the day and the week as well. Agreed?

Yes, a desire for variety is one of the ways evolution designed us to find a well balanced diet. But the variety has to be real. That probably sounds odd, but here’s what I mean. I could lay out a spread of potato chips that feature 10 different flavors — sour cream and onion, barbecue, salt and vinegar, ketchup, etc. There is a variety of flavor, but that variety is fake — a product of flavor chemicals. Nutritionally, you’re still just getting fried potato slices. That kind of false variety has only existed for the past 50 years or so — and the results speak for themselves.

I thought is also interesting that foods with bitter compounds like grapes, blueberries, and broccoli, tend to induce satiety enzymes, making sure we do not overeat. We're also learning so much about how these secondary compounds help to reduce blood pressure, fight cancer growth, encourage skin elasticity, and kill viruses. Why don't we hear more about this in mainstream news?

I think part of the problem is how the information is communicated and how think about it. There are, very often, stories about the cancer fighting properties of this or that plant compound. They are, on some level, true. But the problem is we start to think of food like it’s a pharmaceutical. People start to think "fish oil is healthy, so if I pop a fish oil pill I can go to McDonald's for lunch” or “this broccoli will fight cancer." The protective effects of whole foods are small and accumulate over a long period of time. Eating isn’t like taking pills. It’s a way of life.

Yes, a way of life. SO important. Have your own food habits changed since you completed The Dorito Effect?

Yes. I first got interested in flavor from a culinary point of view when I wrote my first book, Steak. The French chef Alain Ducasse told me the hardest thing for a chef isn’t cooking — its finding great ingredients. Before that, I didn’t think all that much about whether some carrots tasted better than other carrots, or just why it was those huge strawberries from California tasted like water. But his words stayed with me, and over time the way I thought about food completely changed. I set out to find great ingredients. It had nothing to do with health — I just wanted great tasting food. But strangely, over time I found that my palate started to change. I used to be someone who hated vegetables. Now I love them. I love the very vegetables that used to make me angry — Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe, and cauliflower. My 18-year-old self would be shocked to hear it. I still love steak, too. But my relationship with food keeps changing, and for the better.