The Dorito effect – the link between flavour and nutrition

Mark Schatzker in his book, The Dorito Effect, claims we have killed the nutrition in food by trying to flavour all our food synthetically, as a trade-off for real nutrition.

Over the last 70 years, American animal and plant breeding has focused on yield, pest resistance and appearance — not flavour. The pleasure of an ingredient’s taste did not seem to have practical value. The story has been repeated with tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, wheat, corn and more: all bred for size, speed of growth, pest resistance, shelf life, appearance — not taste. The pleasure of eating seemed superfluous. “In nature,” Author Schatzker writes, “flavor never appears without nutrition.” Flavor means nutrition. Omega-3 fatty acids have flavor. Phenylethanol, a chemical compound humans love and often describe as a “rose note” in tomatoes, is made by an essential amino acid, which its presence signifies. Flavor’s purpose is to help us become like ingestive homing pigeons. Our bodies learn to draw connections between flavors and the physiological responses they signal. Through this post-ingestive feedback, latent intelligence in our digestive systems is animated. We can seek out and find what we need, nutritionally, and stop eating once we get it.

So basically, writes Schatzker, "When they bite into foods that taste like tacos, cherries, grapes, or oranges, their brains think they are actually eating tacos, cherries, grapes, or oranges. But what they are actually tasting are flavor chemicals."

But for the body to develop credible associations — including feeling satiated — between dark greens and iron, or eggs from free-ranging chickens and carotenoids, or tomatoes and phenylethanol, it needs to be communicated with honestly. Otherwise it can’t learn. “All over ­nature, animals limit their meal size not because they’re stuffed and couldn’t possibly eat another bite, but because they’ve hit a secondary compound wall,” i.e. met nutritional needs beyond calories. Synthetic-flavour technology makes bland ingredients attractive without supplying the myriad benefits of the real thing. The twin forces of flavour dilution and fake ­flavor have short-circuited the biological basis for mutable appetite.

Aside from changing the status of flavour — from frill to nutritional essential — the most radical thing about “The Dorito Effect” is that Schatzker doesn’t suggest returning to agriculture of simpler days. His solution is technological. He suggests turning to what started the mess in the first place: breeding. The trade-offs of flavour for pest resistance, for example, weren’t inevitable. Schatzker writes of five successful contemporary breeding experiments — of chicken, tomatoes, potatoes, cacao beans and lettuce — that keep a focus on factors like yield and shelf life, while adding flavor to the list of priorities. It’s doable; it just needs to be done.


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