Monday, July 27, 2015


There have been a lot of books written about food lately. People want to know where their food comes from, how it is made or grown, and what might be wrong with it. People are trying to navigate through a mess of food narratives with buzz-words like organic, free-range, grass-fed, GMO-free, anti-biotic free, natural. But with so many competing interests, it is difficult to sort out who or what to believe.

Mark Schatzker adds another valuable voice, a new perspective, to this growing narrative around food. In The Dorito Effect he goes further than with his previous book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. Not unexpectedly, he did find the tastiest piece of beef, on a farm where the cows grazed on pasture etc., but The Dorito Effect asks why. Where does flavour come from? Why does it exist? Where did it go? (And if you are scratching your head at that last one you are probably not old enough to know how much flavour has changed. When I asked my grandmother, she knew exactly what I was talking about.) And most importantly, how do we get it back.

This book, like others in this genre, serves the dual purpose of educating while entertaining with anecdotes from different people with a story to tell. Schatzker has threaded some of these narratives throughout the book, which adds a kind of continuity that other non-fiction books may lack — a cast of characters that you get to know and care about.

The story that I particularly enjoyed was about Fred Provenza, a scientist who used the behaviour of sheep and goats to ask questions about nutrition — mainly how do they know what to eat. Through descriptions of some pretty elegant experiments, Schatzker weaves a tale where things like nutrition and flavour are intimately linked. Animals know even better than nutritionists what their bodies need to survive. But what does this have to do with us?

Our bodies are also our own “nutritionists.” When we let them. But we have learned to ignore what our bodies are telling us (by indiscriminately consuming supplements, for example) and, even worse, our bodies are being fooled by food that tastes good but is no longer nutritious. By food that has severed the link between nutrition and flavour. This is the "Dorito Effect" — bland food disguised with flavourful nutrition mimics.

One of my biggest compliments about this book is that it is a fair account. It is really easy to stand on a soap-box and declare that one thing or another is the most important — Organic! Sustainability! Welfare! Economics! Anyone can make a one-sided argument and make it sound plausible, and even convince a couple people that it is the most important thing. But this is only doing people a disservice by oversimplifying an incredibly complex problem. Schatzker fully admits the different roadblocks that he, and others, have encountered when pursuing flavour.

(Aside: I am an animal welfare scientist. But I would be hard pressed to get any farmer or industry group to listen to what I had to say if I disregarded what they are most concerned about: economics. Instead, I have to demonstrate how the animal welfare and economic agendas are one and the same. How? By showing that animals with better welfare make a better product and ultimately save money.)

Schatzker takes this balance in stride when commenting on the history of how we got to such a flavourless state. First, the connection between flavour and nutrition has been newly embraced, and even then not by everyone. Second, food is where it is because plant and animal breeders have previously used measures like yield, disease resistance, and feed efficiency to genetically select the fastest and most efficient product. As a consequence of not selecting for flavour, and nutrition, we now have chickens that reach market weight in record time (6 weeks!) but taste like “one of those pillows they hand out on airplanes” and are not as good for you as they were at the turn of the 20th century.

The picture looks bleak, but Schatzker offers some hope in the way of a compromise. Mainly that yield (or price) doesn’t need to be sacrificed for taste if you combine the right varieties. Nutritious, delicious and affordable: the triple threat. I have already said too much about this incredibly thought-provoking account of modern food. It is by no means the only account, but it is an important voice nonetheless. And unless we want a future of bland, nutritionless, Orwellian food-products that must be consumed just to sustain life, people need to start speaking up for real flavour.

Michelle Hunniford is a PhD student studying animal behaviour and welfare. Poultry specialist. Grammar enthusiast. Orwellian and Darwinian. 

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