I’ve often noted that we Americans may be both the best fed and least nourished people on the planet. In the midst of an ostensible abundance of food and what many consider to be the best health care system in the world, the rates of preventable chronic diseases continue to rise. Like most Americans, I never put two and two together, that is, until I began to actually pay attention to what I ate.
Putting two and two together?
In late 1997, I had just begun graduate school. Slim and trim for most of my life, I had gained quite a bit of weight, as my demanding undergraduate studies left me little time for exercise. Moreover, it didn’t help that the college cafeteria, while certainly not the (junk) food court at the mall, nevertheless didn’t exactly resemble the farmer’s market either. (And frankly, I didn’t much care; I ate what was served.) But now, at the beginning of a new stage in my life, I was determined to lose weight and eat a healthy diet.
In addition to getting back to daily exercise, my plan included purchasing only organic food, be it produce, meat, fish, nuts, you name it. (Living in California made this relatively easy.) I was on a graduate stipend, so I wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but two things I noticed immediately were: 1) I didn’t need to eat as much food as I used to in order to feel full, and 2) the food was delicious: much more delicious than the food on which I’d grown up. (My roommate thought I was nuts, that is, until he bit into one of the carrots I offered him; his eyes opened wide, amazed at its astounding flavor.) It was at this point that I made a connection, wondering, is more nutritious food actually more flavorful food?
Faster + Bigger = Better?
A close friend of mine is convinced (like my grad school roommate was) that organic food is nothing but a huge marketing scam intended to separate well intentioned, though gullible, consumers from their money. There’s no reason to believe, so he thinks (as do many), that conventionally grown/raised foods are any less nutritious or flavorful than what is sold as “natural” or “organic;” the connection I made between nutrition and flavor was just a coincidence. Or was it? Was I dreaming that I felt fuller? That the food I was eating was so much more noticeably tasty? Moreover, were the pounds that were coming off (and staying off) yet another illusion?
So it was with great interest that I recently read the best-seller, The Dorito Effect. In this well-researched and thoroughly enjoyable book (named from the story behind how fake taco flavor was added to plain tortilla chips to create a junk food sensation), journalist Mark Schatzker tells the fascinating story of how American food producers have, in the words of one reviewer, “interfered with the body’s conversation with itself.” Said another way, our food is lying to us.
Indeed, long before I made the nutrition-flavor connection in my little Sacramento apartment, cookbooks as far back as the 1960s were lamenting food (especially chicken) that tasted like “the stuffing inside a teddy bear” (so declared Julia Child in her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking) that “needs strong dousings of herbs, wines, and spices to make it at all palatable.” Why? It seemed that advances in chicken production were resulting in less flavorful poultry; and the blandness problem was observed not only in chicken.
As far back as the 1940s scientists already were aware of what they call the “dilution effect,” the negative effect that intensive fertilizing, irrigating, and breeding has on crops. In 2004, the Journal of the American College of Nutrition published a study conducted at the Biochemical Institute, the University of Texas lab noted for having discovered more vitamins than any other laboratory in the world. Comparing the nutritional properties of forty-three garden crops grown between 1950 and 1999, the results were alarming: “As a group,” the study found that “the 43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable declines” in nutrient content. The cause? “Trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.” Thus, it turns out that growing food faster and bigger actually results in lower concentrations of nutrients. What takes their place? Mostly water and carbohydrates, which, if you will, “push out” the nutrients that normally would be there if allowed to grow naturally. This dilution results, unsurprisingly, in less nutritious, watery tasting fruits and vegetables. Quantity (i.e., profit) was winning out over quality.
Enter “Big Flavor”
You’re likely familiar with “Big Pharma” and “Big Ag,” but did you know that there is such a thing as “Big Flavor”?
Unconcerned with increased production’s unintended consequences of blander and less nutritious food, industry invested, not in seeking ways to improve nutrient content (and therefore flavor), but rather in the much less expensive method of hiring chemists to invent what are today called “flavor solutions:” astoundingly accurate synthetic imposters of flavors that occur naturally in food.
Invented in 1950s, the remarkable technology known as gas chromatography allowed scientists to separate out of food the precise individual chemical compounds of a particular aroma or flavor. In 1978, the famous McCormick spice and herbs company set out to nail fake vanilla. (The price of real vanilla beans had skyrocketed due to a Marxist takeover of Madagascar, then ground zero for vanilla bean production.) Assembling a team of expert sniffers and tasters (I never knew such talents existed!), McCormick over four years painstakingly identified the exact chemical makeup of what became a worldwide sensation: Imitation Vanilla. As Schatzker tells it,
Whereas vanilla extract featured hundreds of compounds, Imitation Vanilla had around thirty, and not one of them was from vanilla beans. Vanilla had been chemically decapitated and its production outsourced from Madagascar to suburban Baltimore. Only the chemists knew about it. To a person licking an ice cream cone, it tasted exactly the same. […] Fake vanilla was cheap and available by the gallon. And it didn’t taste fake anymore.
And there you go. The food industry had discovered the ability to make non-food products taste exactly like real food without anyone knowing the difference. “Only the chemists knew about it.” Today there are more than fifty corporations who have perfected the science of manipulating our flavor receptors (and with them our emotions and “need states”) and who produce thick catalogs of synthetic flavors that are added to every kind of food product imaginable. Practically everything in your kitchen, from chicken to yogurt to potato chips to candy — even food labeled “natural” — contains some kind of synthetic flavoring invented by a chemist in a laboratory that is purposely designed to trick you into thinking you’re eating real food. Your food is lying to you, on purpose.
What are the consequences? We’ll take a look next time…
– Owen Sweeney