The Dorito Effect, Addictive Snackability, and the Dangers of Lab-Created Flavors

Does Mark Schatzker’s new book oversimplify the relationship between nutritional value and the origins of flavor?

Food Features

Snack food fans, take note: Mark Schatzker’s new book The Dorito Effect isn’t just about Doritos. I know, it’s a total bummer, but not to worry, it’s still a pretty decent read.

The Dorito Effect argues that the food industry has manufactured flavorings to make food items addictive and almost irresistible. Yes, there is a reason why “once you pop, you can’t stop”, and Schatzker believes it’s to do with artificial food flavors and the manipulation of our taste buds. Schatzker says that we have been on a nutritional witch hunt, targeting all things carbs, sugars and fats, but we keep failing to realize is that the witch hunt isn’t working. After years of loading foods with flavors made in labs, we have interfered with the chemical makeup of what our body is used to expecting in food.

I spoke with Schatzker in early May at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto, where he gave a presentation. “There is a lot of B.S. out there, which is getting people frightened [about food]. I don’t think the science has to be complicated. Very simply, the food that we grow is getting blander and blander and flavor technology has gotten incredibly powerful,” he said—and indeed, food production and livestock and plant breeding in the past 70 years has focused more on high yield than taste. “Flavor grows in factories now rather than on farms and it’s not surprising that people are making poor food choices because our bodies follow the delicious food,” he continued.

In the book, he suggests that we perceive healthy foods to taste bad, and tasteless ones to be healthy. The cause for this? Flavor overproduction. “We are hooked on flavoring ingredients that are often so powerful, just a few drops could flavor Niagara Falls for an hour,” Schatzker writes.

Schatzker also theorizes that lab-derived flavors are linked to the obesity epidemic. It’s a hefty claim (no pun intended) to make, but is it one that stands up. In our conversation, Schatzker pointed that despite the frequent demonizing of foods high in carbs, sugars, and fats, “it’s not working. These nutrients that we keep attacking all existed in the 1960s when the collective BMI was much lower, so why weren’t people so big back then?” Schatzker believes that while food technology evolves, our waistlines will continue to expand.

However, even in “natural” foods, things like sweetners (honey, maple syrup), whole-grains (quinoa, oats) or even less-refined fats (ghee, coconut oil), while seen as healthier options in the long run, can still expand and add to our waistlines as well. Sugar is sugar, fat is fat, refined or not.

At the Terroir Symposium, I spoke with Abbey Sharp, a Registered Dietitian (RD) and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen. Sharp also attended Schatzker’s session. We briefly chatted about the suggestions Schatzker makes in his book regarding the obesity epidemic. “Talking about obesity as an epidemic is more of a problem than obesity itself,” said Sharp. “During [Schatzker’s] session, he kept referring to how we should taste food to determine the nutrients it has and how organic food is healthier. Currently, research shows that there is no difference in nutrient levels of organics foods vs. conventional foods.” Also, there are plenty of salty, sweet, and utterly snackable processed organic foods out there, such as organic barbecue “flavored” potato chips. And the flavor industry can still highly manipulate flavors, even if they are derived from natural sources.

On the flipside of that, we must recognize that eating free-range, organic or home-grown foods (as recommended in the books section “How to Live Long and Eat Flavorfully” section) is somewhat problematic for many people. A staggering number of North Americans use food banks to survive daily, with one report from Canada reporting in 2014 that 37% of its users were children. According to a 2014 Feeding America report, 49.1 million Americans live in food insecure households. While food banks and food pantries do often offer fresh produce and whole, unrefined foods (such as rice or dried beans), they also—by necessity—offer a lot of highly processed, shelf-stable foods.

Schatzker said to me, “This stuff goes in your body. Why are we so reluctant to spend more money on food?” However, the reality of the situation is not all people can afford to feed themselves this way as much as they would like to. Many families of modest means want to eat organic, free-range or perhaps home-grown foods, but cannot offset the high cost of such goods or don’t have the time available to grow or seek out locally grown or raised foods. And what about those who live in food deserts where easy access any kind of fresh produce is limited? It boils down to a privilege and access situation.

One thing that Schatzker and I agree on: there is a lot of bullshit out there about food, which in turn makes people develop a poor relationship with food. Not just those who are obese, but the population at large. The big thing that Schatzker has done with his book is try to break down the charms and appeals of factory flavor production. We should be much more mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies, day in and day out. Overall, The Dorito Effect brings up a lot of interesting points on the science of food, nutrition and flavor, and how we can change our eating habits.

Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a full-time community builder and official ‘head bee in charge’ of the food, fat and feminism blog, Fat Girl Food Squad. When she isn’t busy kickin’ ass and takin’ names, she is having serious feels for all things coffee, hip-hop, the art of drag, Kardashians, pizza and Doritos. You can find more bylines from her at Eater, BizBash and Toronto is Awesome. Follow her on Twitter: @amapod.

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