Tastes Lousy, More Filling

The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor BY Mark Schatzker. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 272 pages. $27.

Almost 150 pages into his short, punchy, fascinating book The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker describes his encounter, at a children’s birthday party, with the “unmistakable powdery orange triangles” he’s adopted as a shorthand for what ails our food system. By this point in the narrative, the reader (along with Schatzker himself) knows just about everything there is to know about junk food. We also understand exactly why Schatzker proceeds to binge on the chips. Even though, as he recounts, “I told myself I would have precisely one,” he takes another, and another, and another, while “the analytical part of my brain sat back and watched the primitive zones of desire and reward play their cat-and-mouse game.”

Structured with admirable clarity, cohesion, and methodological rigor, The Dorito Effect delves deeply into the reasons food doesn’t taste the way it used to. Schatzker shows how produce and meat have become ever blander as the diets of livestock have been more precisely calibrated to fatten them as fast and as cheaply as possible, so that what we’re actually eating when we eat chicken or pork or beef are tasteless “giant babies.” He also chronicles the way that agribusiness combines have amped up crop yields so as to create a “dilution effect” that waters down the taste of fruits and vegetables. Finally, The Dorito Effect lays out the perverse upshot of this taste-decimating revolution in food engineering: We’ve adopted a wide range of synthetic flavors to compensate for the flatness of our food, and their prevalence is a primary cause of our current national epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Flavor and nutrition, as it turns out, are inseparable in the food kingdom, and Schatzker’s groundbreaking explication of this symbiosis is itself worth the price of the book. Flavor is an indicator of nutrition to animals—and was also to us, apparently, before our palates were tricked and befuddled by junk food. The real satiation of appetite stems from this fine-grained interdependence of taste and nutrition. Animals and human infants demonstrate considerable “nutritional wisdom” when left to their own devices. Schatzker describes a riveting 1926 experiment that permitted children to choose their own foods for a number of years; in the end, the children in this group were markedly healthier than those fed by nutritionists. Another study proved that goats and sheep instinctively know more about what they need to eat than “a big-brained human with a PhD in animal nutrition.”

When nutrition is missing from flavor, as it is in the Dorito, a feedback loop of craving sets in. The famous Frito-Lay slogan “Betcha can’t eat just one” is essentially true: These counter-nutritional snacks are expressly created to make you want to eat the whole bag. Big Macs follow the same model.

Since the 1940s, the increasingly industrial and corporate American food business has worked tirelessly to develop food that costs less to produce, grows faster and more plentifully, ships and stores more easily, and is affordable for the middle-class consumer. For a couple of decades, as these cost-controlled inputs reigned over our food system, flavor was not much of a priority. That all changed, Schatzker writes, in 1962, the year the vice president of marketing of Frito-Lay, Arch West, bought a container of tortilla chips at a Mexican roadside stand in Southern California. He loved the crunch, which was better than a corn chip’s. He took the idea of mass-producing tortilla chips to Frito-Lay, and Doritos, meaning “little pieces of gold,” were born. But the crunchy new snack was bland; it didn’t fly off the shelves. Then it dawned on West: What if a salted tortilla chip could be made more delicious, jazzed up to taste like . . . a taco? The rest, of course, is history. In a stroke of marketing genius, the thing itself, the crunchy triangle of fried, salted tortilla, was divorced from its identity and designed to fool consumers (or, more accurately, their palates) into thinking they were eating a taco. “By 2010, the chip beloved by everyone from toddlers and teenagers to stoners and the infirm was earning Frito-Lay $5 billion a year,” Schatzker notes.

Early on, Doritos were flavored with spices and “natural” seasonings. But the synthetic-flavor plot thickened in 1975, when vanilla production was devastated in Madagascar following the assassination of the president. The new leader, a military man named Didier Ratsiraka, declared the country a Marxist republic. Some of the following year’s vanilla crops were destroyed in order to drive up the price of vanilla extract. This ingredient, which was primarily found in Madagascar and ubiquitous in processed baked goods, was suddenly prohibitively expensive.

The need to redress this shortage was the impetus behind a discovery that led to a parallel new movement in mass-produced food: the flavor industry. “McCormick asked a question,” Schatzker writes. “Is there an easier way to make vanilla? There was. And the answer, though spectacularly complex, was also ingeniously simple: fool people.” One hundred and seven years earlier, a German scientist named Wilhelm Haarmann had used pinecones to synthesize a substance called vanillin, which mimicked the main flavors of vanilla. “By the mid-1970s, the world was awash in Wilhelm Haarmann’s wonder powder,” Schatzker observes. “Vanillin was cheap, it stored easily, and it didn’t come from politically unstable former French colonies.”

Vanillin was only the first lab-made ingredient in an increasingly lucrative, sophisticated, and diabolically clever ruse. Food scientists built on Haarmann’s breakthrough additive to produce a whole new line of chemically engineered flavors designed to trick consumers’ palates into thinking they were eating, say, a strawberry, when in fact they were ingesting a series of chemicals produced, synthesized, and combined with delicate precision in a lab.

Thus were nutrition and taste divorced—a split that has widened through the decades, with dire repercussions not only for human health but also for the animals we eat and live with. Our livestock and pets are fed the same crap we’re getting—in addition, they’re processing food by-products and ground-up dreck as nutritionless filler. A Dorito and a can of Alpo share the same seductive dangers, and neither one of them can satisfy or nourish. Like empty chimeras mimicking real food, they provoke more hunger pangs than they satisfy.

The chicken and the tomato are Schatzker’s chosen symbols for what’s been lost. In olden days, a chicken used to be filled with the flavors of its natural diet of kitchen scraps, bugs, worms, and other tasty things found while pecking around the barnyard in the sunlight. Now industrially raised chickens are fattened on a regimen of by-products, corn, vitamins, antibiotics, and processed chicken parts; they blimp up so quickly they can’t walk. Most of them collapse under the weight of their own breasts, and then, to add insult to injury, they’re slaughtered at six to eight weeks old, long before they reach their prime. This is not a new phenomenon: Julia Child lamented the loss of chicken’s once robust, rich, exciting flavor in 1961’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; she described cheap, mass-produced chicken as tasting like “the stuffing inside a teddy bear.”

Tomatoes, meanwhile, are mass-produced on high-yield vines, bred, like chickens, to grow as quickly as possible. They’re picked green and unripe and shipped off to grocery warehouses. Retailers sell them after they turn red, but the vine-ripened flavor is entirely missing. The tomato is, of course, a thing of culinary beauty when it’s picked at its peak, sun-warmed and mature, from a natural vine in an organic garden, raised without pesticides and herbicides; when you eat a naturally grown tomato, it bursts in your mouth with intense, amazing flavor. But all this is lost when it’s produced in a factory-farm system that leeches the soil of nutrients while replacing only those elements that cause tomatoes to balloon up on the vine.

As a result of this flavor depletion, which affects every aspect of foods formerly grown naturally, we’re cooking with more spices and herbs, more flavor packets and sauces, more salt and sugar and MSG. Cookbooks have changed right along with our food: Chicken used to be cooked with nothing but salt and pepper, since it could be counted on to supply nearly all the flavor. Now chicken recipes call for a battery of spice-and-herb concoctions to disguise its essential tastelessness.

As I read The Dorito Effect, I was frequently reminded of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—namely, of Willy Wonka’s three-course meal in a stick of chewing gum, which poor Violet Beauregarde chews and chews despite warnings that it’s not ready for consumption. Violet simply can’t resist the rush of artificial flavor, and so she turns into a giant blueberry, possibly the first victim of the Dorito Effect. For his part, Schatzker describes eating fast-food chicken thus: “The exterior perfectly executed the Dorito model: crispy, fatty, and loaded with MSG. The actual meat beneath it was dry as toilet paper. And yet, I couldn’t seem to stop eating it. . . . It was as though the chicken created an itch that only more chicken could scratch. I ate till the bucket was empty.”

This descent into the dark heart of McRegret stands in stark relief against another gustatory adventure, in which Schatzker samples an heirloom variety of chicken called a barred rock. This particular chicken had been raised the old-fashioned way—outside, in the sunlight, pecking at bugs and worms—and allowed to mature into a fourteen-week-old “fryer,” a type of chicken that scarcely exists in our industrial food system. The resulting plucked, scrawny, two-and-a-half-pound bird “was yellow and the fat inside the carcass was darker yellow. It didn’t look like chicken. It looked like a dead bird.”

Schatzker cut it up, hauled out an old cookbook from 1902, and made fried chicken using salt and pepper, flour, and oil, nothing else. While he was cooking, a couple of friends dropped in; he reluctantly invited them to stay, sure there wouldn’t be enough for everyone. “The chicken was now golden and crispy. And smaller than before. And my, what a chicken. The stages of pleasure went as follows: incredulity, astonishment, elation, glowing thankfulness. . . . We were drunk on chicken. Most amazing of all, somehow there were leftovers.”

The difference between these two chicken-eating experiences is profound and deeply sad. But The Dorito Effect is ultimately a hopeful manifesto, not an elegy or lament. Schatzker thoroughly articulates the loss-of-flavor problem and its causes and effects, but he points toward a solution: “Real flavor is our salvation,” he tells us. Since flavor and nutrition are linked, we need to put the flavor back into food. This can be done through the same methods that removed it in the first place: bioengineering. We are shown what happens when the taste-depleted supermarket tomato is crossed with a delicious one: It works, and it’s possible. The tomato is lush, and it also grows quickly and ships easily.

“There is no excuse anymore,” Schatzker writes near the book’s end. “We can begin growing all the food we need, and it can be flavorful and fulfilling in the way the human animal desires it to be. Technology got us into this mess, and technology can get us out. The rest is up to us. If consumers demand real flavor, and if they pay a little bit more for it, then real flavor is what they will get.”

This exhaustively researched, economically argued, and passionately cogent examination of the disappearance of flavor from the American diet might be the first step in changing our food back into something recognizably delicious. It’s certainly a hell of a lot of fun to read. And it made me crave real fried chicken and a real tomato, fresh off the vine.

Kate Christensen is the author of Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites (2013), as well as six novels, including The Epicure’s Lament (2004; both Doubleday). She lives in Portland, Maine, and the White Mountains.