The Dorito Effect – Book review

Some books change the way you look at the world. They might change your opinion on a certain topic, teach you something new or appreciate something new. I like those books, it’s why I read books, to re-adjust and calibrate my view on the world.

Being a food scientist I especially like it when this happens to me when reading about food and science. So when I recently read the Dorito Effect, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that this was one of those books. It got my brain turning and myself thinking, thinking about food and health in a new way. Since then, I’ve seen ‘the Dorito Effect’ showing up around me in real life, that restaurant salad that contains more dressing than ice berg lettuce, those fries with plenty seasoning, making it hard to stop eating. I’ll explain you what it’s all about.

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you’ve probably watched your fat, sugar, protein or carb intake. Trying carefully to not eat too much of either of them. Fat, sugar and carbohydrates in general have often been blamed of causing the current obesity epidemic. But what if it isn’t as simple as that, if there’s more?Mark Schatzker, in the Dorito Effect, gives us this refreshing look at the world of food and the food industry. There might be more, and it might well have to do with flavours, those non-caloric additions to food.

Loss of flavour

We humans tend to think we understand how the world works, that we can engineer it better than nature can. Whereas there are great examples of how we’ve been able to engineer complex things, they never really tend to be as complex as nature was able to make them. The Dorito Effect shows that there are things we might have overlooked in the complexity of foods, plants, but meats as well.

In the past decades agriculture has transformed greatly. Modern food production is highly productive, with great yields. However, in the journey to optimizing food production, we seem to have lost sight of flavor.

As a result, tomatoes, ice berg lettuce, chicken and most other produce lost flavor over time. Whereas decades ago a chicken tasted fine without any seasoning, it’s bland nowadays. As a result we use plenty marinades, spice mixes, etc. to improve our food. If you’ve ever tasted a great tomato you’ll know it doesn’t need a lot more than a drizzle of olive oil and maybe a sprinkle of salt to taste great. However, most bland tomatoes out there do need all that dressing. And whereas that tomato doesn’t contain a lot of calories, but healthy substances, those dressings do tend to be rich in calories, low in nutritional value.

Loss of nutrients

Mark Schatzker explains that by now, researchers have found that this loss of flavor is strongly linked to a loss of nutritional value. A lot of flavor molecules seem to be indicators for a certain nutritional value of produce.

Flavor, as well as colour, are great indicators, not for the amount of calories that are in a plant, but for the extremely rich variety of other minor nutrients in plants. For these components it’s not always possible or easy to demonstrate they’re healthy for you. What’s more, when you take the individual components, their contributions are probably minor. It’s the interaction and wide variety of them that makes them good for us.

It is also that complexity, that we don’t really understand and which we most probably won’t be able to replicate that easily, or efficiently plants. Nature has taken thousands of years to optimize it’s ways and it is becoming clear that it is a lot more complex than we might have thought initially.

Nutritional wisdom

The concept of nutritional wisdom is probably one of the most interesting and mind changing concepts that is introduced in the book. IT greatly changed my personal way I looked at food and eating in general.

Nutritional wisdom is the wisdom that animals, including humans, seem to have when it comes to feeding ourselves. If not tricked or fooled, we tend to be able to eat a nutritionally balanced diet all by ourselves, without the help of nutritionists, dieticians and special foods. Knowing the concept, it seems so obvious to me. Of course animals and humans need to be able to eat a nutritionally balanced diet. Else we wouldn’t have survived those thousands of years before there was such a thing as food industry.

Mark Schatzker discusses several pieces of fascinating research here, showing how goats were able to balance their diet. Whenever a goat (or another animal for that matter) has a certain nutritional deficiency, for example, a lack of iodine, they’ll start looking for other foods to make up for that iodine. Of course, they don’t know they’re lacking that specific nutrient. Also, they don’t know that a certain plant contains that nutrient. However, they do know that they feel better after eating something with the nutrient they’re lacking.

A very important parameter in remembering what was good for them in a certain situation, is the flavor of that food. The flavor helps them to ‘remember’ or recognize the role of that food. As a result, a next time they might have the same deficiency, they’ll be looking for those foods, more specifically, that flavor again. Another study, where the same concept is shown for children is also discussed, it’s amazing.

cherry, red, vine, green tomatoes, all different varieties
Tomatoes return to the table several times in this book, they’re one of the examples Mark Schatzker uses to illustrate the loss of flavour, but also the opportunity to get it back again!

Where flavor confuses us

However, this nutritional wisdom can be fooled. Quite easily actually, simply through flavor. Train a goat that lavender tasting grains are good for them if they have a certain protein deficiency, and they’ll go looking for lavender tasting foods. If that lavender flavor was added artificially though, the goat will get confused and will make it hard for the goat to recognize the foods it needs.

The same goes for humans. Since a lot of low nutritional foods are flavored artificially, we have problem to link the flavor with actual nutritional value. Our system is fooled continuously.

The Dorito Effect

This is where the title: Dorito Effect, comes in. Dorito’s themselves were pretty flavourless when they were introduced, which is why most people ate them with a sauce. Up to the point where someone found a way to flavor Doritos and make them taste like tacos. All of a sudden, you could easily eat an entire bag without filling up.

The Dorito Effect can also be found in those flavorless tomatoes with ice berg lettuce and plenty dressing. We’re trying to cover up something flavourless to help us eat more.

Obesity is flavor confusion?

According to Mark, the obesity epidemic isn’t a mere calorie calculation. We have to understand why people would even want to eat so many calories. If you’re eating a plain tasty broccoli or potato, you’ll never be able to eat as much calories to become obese. Your body will already stop, partly because of those secondary minor components in for instance a broccoli, that help you feel full or at least stop eating.

It’s a very interesting point that the author makes. It’s definitely changed how I look at food. It’s not a mere calorie calculation, it’s a lot more complex. We as food scientists should at least be aware and see where we can or should use this knowledge.

stew meat (runderriblappen) beef
Has the flavour of meat changed over the past decades as well? Does it have more fat and less secondary nutrients indeed? You see beef here, but apart from that chicken is of main interest to Mark Schatzker.

The author

The author of the Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker, has written another book about flavor and food before (called: Steak: One man’s search for the World’s tastiest piece of beef). That book was centered around beef and steak. Besides this previous book, he has written various articles for various new outlets.

Overall evaluation

This is must read if you’re in food development, but definitely worthwhile as well if you’re interested in food and nutrition. It’s definitely changed how I look at food and farming. Also, the book has been written very well. It’s a true story of the author exploring the topic through chicken and tomatoes.

Preview

If you’d like to get a better first impression of the book, considering reading these articles by Mark Schatzker in which he illustrates his main concept using chicken and chicken flavour.

The Dorito Effect: How our approach to food is killing its flavour, Mark Schatzker, The Globe and Mail, April 2015, link

Why chicken doesn’t taste like chicken anymore, Mark Schatzker, NY Post, April 2015, link

Sources

Mark Schatzker’s personal website, link

What a curious law-suit about egg-less mayonaise can teach us, Mark Schatzker, 2014, link; another plea for transparency and especailly clarity in the food industry

The pungent debate of using garlic in cooking, Mark Schatzker, 2014, link; another article by Mark Schatzer pleading for more flavour in the raw materials we use in our food

One Comment

  1. I also read this book and really enjoyed the change in perspective from what we are typically accustomed to as food scientists. I loved how the author showed examples with different types of foods, beginning with the Dorito. Who knew a simple chip could be so powerful!

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