Every now and then it's good for the mind and the soul to read a book you suspect you're going to disagree with. Here's a report on one of my recent encounters of this kind.
The first and most basic premise of Mark Schatzker's provocative 2015 book "The Dorito Effect" (http://tiny.cc/…) seems sound enough: Flavor matters. "We eat," Schatzker says, "because we love the way food tastes."
Polls say he's right. Americans consistently rate "taste" as the most important factor influencing their food-purchasing decisions http://tiny.cc/…. Differently worded surveys of Europeans rank "quality/freshness" first and "taste" lower (http://tiny.cc/…), but flavor is an aspect of both quality and freshness, so it's not clear Americans and Europeans are at odds on this point.
Schatzker's second premise is more debatable. He believes that flavor and nutrition go hand in hand, at least in unprocessed food: More flavorful tomatoes and chickens are more nutritious. We don't, he says, consciously seek out nutrition -- we seek flavor -- but our bodies have evolved with "nutritional wisdom." What we find flavorful, at least with regard to unprocessed food, is also good for us. Schatzker describes some fascinating research on goats by a scientist in Utah that support the nutritional-wisdom thesis. He admits, though, that many scientists question it.
There will also be doubts, though perhaps from different quarters, about Schatzker's third premise -- that plant and animal breeders, focused as they are on yield, have bred some of the flavor and thus some of the nutrition out of our food. Some of the doubters will say tomatoes and chicken today taste just fine, thank you. Other doubters will concede food isn't as tasty as it used to be but will add, "Don't blame the breeders," or at least don't blame their focus on yield.
Premise four is where Schatzker begins to reveal his chemo-phobia: To compensate for the diminished flavor of the basic ingredients, he says, food processors hide the blandness by layering on "natural and artificial flavors." Schatzker calls this "flavor migration," the substitution of synthetic for natural flavor. The author is both admiring of and appalled by the ability of modern laboratories to make a Dorito taste like a taco or flavorless strawberries taste like strawberries of old. Labs can make anything almost taste like almost anything, it seems.
In premise five Schatzker takes an even more controversial leap, contending that flavor migration causes obesity. He offers two arguments in support of this proposition. The first can be summarized in a sentence: "On the most basic level, when real foods like tomatoes, strawberries and chicken taste bland, we make them palatable the only way we know how, by pouring ranch dressing over watery tomatoes, ladling dollops of whipped cream over strawberries and blitzing chicken in flavoring and then dunking it in the deep fryer."
The other argument is more complicated. The human body's "satiety trigger" doesn't work if we're eating taco-flavored Doritos or heavily battered deep-fried chicken or other artificially flavored foods, Schatzker says. The body is getting less nutrition per bite so it encourages us to take more bites by remaining hungry. If, on the other hand, the food we're consuming is deeply nutritious (and hence genuinely flavorful), the trigger works. We stop when we're full.
To me this is the most debatable proposition in the book. It doesn't square with my experience. At a dinner in New York I tried the idea out on foodie friends who dote on heirloom vegetables and meats. It didn't ring true with them, either. "I was full many bites ago but I still cleaned my plate," one noted of a meal made with the best ingredients.
Schatzker's final premise is his most hopeful: Better breeding will solve the problem. He cites new breeds of lettuce, tomatoes and even chocolate that have more flavor and can be grown with only a minor sacrifice in yield. "Technology got us into this mess and technology can get us out," he concludes.
"The Dorito Effect" is a fascinating if flawed book. It brims with interesting facts and anecdotes, especially the descriptions of scientists at work. It's written in a breezy style, sometimes to the point of too breezy. It presents a coherent argument, though one with enough shaky premises that I ended up feeling Schatzker hadn't proved his case.
Still, you don't have to agree with everything in a book for it to be worth reading. It's enough for me if it engages my interest and makes me think. That "The Dorito Effect" definitely did.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org