May 01

Book Review: The Dorito Effect

The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and FlavorThe Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker

I didn’t have high hopes for the book because the narrator sounded too much like the guy who wrote the Nerdist Way lifestyle book or the guy who wrote Kick your Fat in the Nuts–you know, some minor celebrity who hangs around with people who think he’s amazing and gets an inflated sense of his own brilliance which he thinks extends to diet and nutrition. But you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or its narrator, either.

Schatzker isn’t a primary researcher, but he does consult with a lot of experts on this subject, so as the book went along I became more and more convinced by his argument. The Dorito Effect, as a theory, basically states that modern food is so bland that it’s only palatable when it’s covered with taste-mimicking chemicals. (This is based on the theory that Doritos are edible. Personally, I think they are pretty nasty.) He discusses why they have become bland, mostly that everything has been bred for production and that no one cares about taste because people don’t pay more (in theory) for better taste. Then he goes into why the Dorito Effect is bad for us and is making us fat.

At first I thought, “Oh here we go, yet another baseless theory as to why modern people are so fat.” But the logic holds. He cites research on goats and sheep, where the animals know what plants to eat based on what their bodies need. People do this too, especially pregnant people. Why do pregnant women eat dirt (but only certain, specific kinds of dirt)? Because it tastes good to them. I still do this. I craved beet greens obsessively while I was anemic from too much blood donation, and stopped when my iron levels evened out. Sometimes I crave coconut. Sometimes kalamata olives. Sometimes kale. When I get a craving, I’ll binge on it for a week or so and then stop. Apparently this makes me as smart as a goat. Goats may seem dumb, but they are geniuses at eating. Goats and sheep learn what they need by taste; if they need the plant, it tastes good. When they get enough of it, they stop eating it. They’re even more sophisticated than that; they know to eat two plants in sequence that are toxic independently but benign when mixed together.  Schatzker calls this “nutritional wisdom” and says we have it too.

So the theory is that by adding artificial flavors (and “natural” flavors are still made in a lab) to food, we subvert the nutritional wisdom that lets our bodies know what kinds of food we should seek out. You might know to drink lemonade when you need vitamin C, but if all the lemonade you’ve ever drunk has been just fake flavoring without the real nutrients, your body will have never made that connection. He’s got a special loathing for fortified sweet cereals and flavored multi-vitamins, saying they will just encourage people to (wrongly) seek out sugar and fake fruit when they’re undernourished.

And there’s a huge link between flavor and nutrition, apparently. Nutrition comes from secondary plant compounds, chemical byproducts the plant makes in order to defend itself or to encourage consumption. These chemicals, while toxic in large amounts, are chemicals we have evolved to rely on, for example, folic acid, riboflavin or beta carotene. It’s not just plants, either. Animals that are fed a bland diet have meat that is also less delicious and less nutritious. It makes me a little sad that I never ate any of my old chickens, because apparently I missed out on a ton of flavor (though I also missed out on a mess of bloody feathers, so there’s a trade-off.)

The arguments are more solidly laid out than I’ve summarized here in this review, but they convinced me. Tasty food is better for you than non-tasty food, unless that taste comes from a lab. You could do worse than to eschew anything with the words “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors” on it. Good luck though. It’s everywhere. I even found it in lemonade, which should only have 3 ingredients. But on the plus side, when we’re living on Martian colonies, eating fungal protein and algae cakes, food scientists can make them taste like strawberries and cream.

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