The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor

Reviewed on , book by Mark Schatzker

The Dorito Effect added insightful perspective to my understanding of how food has changed in the past 50 years, filling in much needed missing pieces. The world around us shows what happens when chemistry and artificial flavouring outpace knowledge in farming and human health.

We obsess over the ultimate spice blend, and make them incredibly complex—but when it comes down to it, we’re trying to run from the fact that the food we’re trying to eat in the first place is bland. 50 years ago, recipes called for just salt and pepper. Was that because they were culinarily inferior? Hardly. Rather because the food didn’t need it. It tasted great on its own. In the past decades, agriculture has been optimizing for yield—and that comes with a cost. Taste was never part of the equation, and as a result flavour has diluted. Livestock are fed homogenous diets to the point they need supplements to survive, and vegetables boast up to 30% less minerals and vitamins than they did decades ago. Tomato taste like cartboard? No problem, dip it in some ranch dressing.

What is flavour? It’s information about what we’re consuming. If you deplete a goat of phosphor and inject it into maple, it’ll associate the two. Put it on a phosphourus deficient diet for a while, and then offer them maple as a choice of food and they’ll garble it, even if it has no phosphor. All animals are incredibly efficient at eating the right foods to honour their nutritional requirements—when they’re callibrated. Now humans are consuming fats, cheap carbohydrates and sugars masked behind the tastes of fresh vegetables, tacos and strawberry when none of the secondary compounds making these healthy in the first place are present in reality. Yet, our brain starts to crave it. It’s not craving raw sugar, but flavoured sugar. The miscallibration of our natural flavour talent starts to fade, and we turn into carb-craving calorie zombies. Recallibrating this ability takes a long time, and is why it’s so easy to slip into bad habits. The author argue we don’t crave the sugar, but the flavour that’s added to the sugar. Flavour becomes a piece of information that this is filled with secondary compounds that are good for us. Imagine smelling something bad, or drinking sour milk. Blandness, on the other hand, is a strong signal that something shouldn’t be eaten—but when we diguise the blandness through flavouring, our brain’s natural system gets turned upside down. We start craving flavoured candies instead of apples and blueberries. Nutritionally rich foods satisfy us in a completely different way, causing us to be full in way less calories.

“Cooking is the easy part. The hardest thing about cooking is finding the right ingredients”.

The sad thing is, that we haven’t figured out how to provide high quality food at scale because we haven’t had the need to. Most seem completely fine with the current state, and how cheap it is. It’s up to us to vote with our money.