In Part 1, I shared my discovery of the eye-opening book, The Dorito Effect, in which author Mark Schatzker tells the fascinating yet alarming story of food and flavor. Twentieth century “advances” in food production (making food grow faster and bigger) resulted in blander and less nutritious food. Yet, rather than seeking ways to improve nutrient content (and with it flavor), industry invested instead in making this bland, near lifeless food taste like something it’s not: our food is lying to us, on purpose.
Flavor = Nutrition (At least it used to)
There still are many skeptics who question the fact that our food is any less nutritious than it used to be, that the organic food movement is really just a marketing scam to get virtue-signaling ignoramuses to spend more money on allegedly “better” food. Yet the food industry has known this for decades. Moreover, my own experience told me otherwise: I began to feel better when I began to eat better, “better” meaning food that tasted better precisely because it was more nutritious.
The idea of “nutritional wisdom” — that animals “know” what to eat and what to avoid eating — was mocked once upon a time. It was believed that animals bumbled and stumbled along mindlessly consuming what they were “programmed” to eat, somehow meeting their nutritional needs along way. The truth is that the interaction, literally communication, between animals and what they (and we) eat is fascinatingly complex. Flavor isn’t just a pleasant side effect of getting our nutrition; flavor is nutritional information.
In his book, Schatzker relates the studies of several scientists from across the country that show that nutritional wisdom is a real thing. One experiment involved phosphorus-deficient sheep, one group being trained to associate phosphorus with maple flavoring and another group with coconut. Both flavorings were completely devoid of phosphorus, which was fed to the sheep separately from the flavorings and in a way that the sheep could not taste it. When given the freedom to choose between the two flavors, the sheep always chose the flavor they had been trained to associate with phosphorus, and never the other. When the phosphorus deficiency went away, so did their flavor preference; bringing the deficiency back brought back the exact same cravings for either maple or coconut. Another experiment offered one group of calves a premixed feed formulated by a ruminant nutritionist to perfectly meet their nutritional needs. The other group was left to figure out for themselves what they needed from among the individual foods (alfalfa hay, silage, rolled barley, and rolled corn) that went into the fancy, expert-designed mix. Which group fared better? The free-choice calves!
Probably the best known example of human nutritional wisdom is the story of the British warship Centurion. Suffering from what came to be known as scurvy, a severe Vitamin C deficiency, members of the crew (more than 200 of whom died at sea) developed intense cravings for vegetables. It has been discovered since that scurvy is always occasioned by an acute longing for fruits and vegetables. Quoting James Lind, the Scottish physician who proved scurvy could be cured by citrus fruit, Schatzker explains, “Nature points out the remedy. The ignorant sailor, and the most learned physician, will equally long, with the most craving anxiety, for green vegetables, and the fresh fruits of the earth.” Yes, indeed, flavor is nutritional information. “Flavor technology” takes advantage of this to trick us into thinking we’re getting the nutrients we need when in truth we’re getting none at all.
How flavor technology fools us
When you go to the grocery store and purchase blueberry yogurt, it would be reasonable for you to think that its blueberry flavor comes from actual blueberries, right? Wrong. In the overwhelming majority of cases, your mass-produced yogurt is flavored not with real blueberries, but rather with a completely synthetic chemical imposter invented by a scientist working in a lab under a vent hood. So exact has this science of flavor technology become, that even the incredibly sophisticated sensors in our noses and on our tongues can’t tell the difference between food fact and fiction. Not only is our food good at lying to us, it’s very good, which is exactly why most people haven’t noticed that their blueberry yogurt is devoid of blueberries.
Recall from Part 1 how the famous McCormick spice and herb company (now also a “flavor solutions” company) invented a completely synthetic product that tastes exactly like real vanilla. It was the beginning of an industry that has invented thousands upon thousands of utterly convincing flavor imposters that now are in every kind of food and beverage you can imagine. As Schatzker explains, these “[f]ake flavors take a previously established liking for a real food and apply it, like a sticker, to something else — usually large doses of calories — creating a heightened and nutritionally undeserved level of pleasure.” We’re being manipulated, not only chemically, but also emotionally, and this is crucial to understanding why so many of us keep eating food that’s no good for us.
Food addiction? Really?
For some people (and the number is growing), food actually has become addictive. This isn’t pop psychology looking for ways to make excuses for lazy, overweight people; brain scans of people who cannot control their eating are similar to those of drug addicts.
Normally, when we eat food that is nutritionally dense, we reach a point of satisfaction, what has been called “deep satiety.” As I explained in the previous post, this is exactly what I began to experience when I began eating organic food: I was eating less food but feeling more satisfied. The food I was eating was meeting my nutritional — and even my emotional — needs: I felt satisfied (not at all like feeling “stuffed”) and was thrilled at the noticeably better taste. But what about bland tasting, nutritionally-deficient food loaded with fake flavor that makes it taste like real food? We eat it because our noses, tongues, and brains say, “This taste I love is giving me the nutrients I need.” We keep eating it because the rest of our body says, “Still waiting for those nutrients!” The lie of modern food is like the lie of drugs: the promise, or “high,” inherent in fake flavor fails to deliver, and so, in the hope of enjoying an experience that equals our expectation, we keep eating, and eating, and eating. We literally stuff ourselves with what amounts to delicious cardboard, only to wait for the inevitable crash. And this isn’t just about all-day couch potatoes wolfing down jumbo-size bags of chips; this is about all of us, even those of us who try to avoid junk food. Schatzker explains [emphases mine],
Yes, part of the problem is junk food. There’s more of it, and it’s more alluring than ever. But nonjunk food is a bigger problem. It isn’t as flavorful as it used to be, which has the inverse effect of making junk food yet more enticing. Even worse, we’re turning real food into junk food. Thanks to its off-putting insipidness, we coat it in calories, drench it in dressing, and dust it in synthetic flavor. The more bland it becomes, the harder we try to make it seem real.
What are the consequences?
It shouldn’t require a degree in nutrition to see where all of this has led. When I was a kid in the 1970s, there were one or two “fat kids” in the class; it was unusual to be overweight, and “obesity” wasn’t a part of everyone’s daily lexicon. Now, most kids are the fat kids, and while I might quibble about what exactly defines “obesity,” there is no question that most people today are overweight and obviously unhealthy. The numbers (and the eye test) don’t lie: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the early 1960s only 13.4% of U.S adults were obese. A decade later that number increased to 14.5%. By the late 1990s, the number of obese adult Americans ballooned (pun fully intended) to more than 30%, more than doubling the amount from the ’60s. This didn’t “just happen.”
I’m not suggesting that fake flavors are the single cause of obesity and the alarming and undeniable increase in chronic diseases of all kinds; there are plenty of non-food ingredients other than synthetic flavors that go into the modern food supply. I’ve not mentioned here chemical farming, GMOs, an increasingly sedentary American lifestyle, and many other factors. Nevertheless, it would be illogical to deny the part that modern “food technology” has to play in keeping Americans malnourished and ignorant of their plight.
~ Owen Sweeney