What’s Really Making You Fat

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Photograph by Michael Pirrocco

We’re turning real food into junk food. As journalist Mark Schatzker explains in The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, Big Agriculture has produced tomatoes that last forever and Frankenchickens that are full-grown six weeks after they hatch — and all taste so bland we need to dump on spices to make them edible. During three-plus years of research, Schatzker learned that as taste has evaporated, so has nutrition. Man-made flavors mimic flavors found in nature, chemically printing desire onto food that we normally wouldn’t eat and fooling our bodies into believing we’re getting nutrition that isn’t there. This, Schatzker argues, is what’s really driving the obesity epidemic. Fortunately, he also thinks it’s not too late to retrain our palates.

In your first book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, you’re in Texas eating a rib-eye so bland that you have to slather it with steak sauce. Is this the Dorito effect?
Exactly. This applies broadly to all foods, but two of the best examples are tomatoes and chicken. They’ve been getting diluted nutritionally, and they don’t taste as good as they used to. Chicken, a relatively rare meat at one time, we’ve managed to make cheap and ubiquitous, but it tastes like cardboard. And to coax us into eating these foods, manufacturers pack them with synthetic flavors. That’s the other side of this coin — flavor technology. We had a very limited ability to create flavor until the 1950s. One of the first things we successfully added it to was tortilla chips — Doritos — to make them taste like tacos. We used to add flavor to just junk food — potato chips, soft drinks. Now walk though the supermarket and you’ll be blown away. You can find a whole chicken and in the ingredient panel see “natural flavor.” You see it with pork, and you see it with beef. Everything’s becoming more like that original Dorito.

You mean my water with “natural lemon flavor” might not be as natural as I think?
It might not even say “lemon.” The term natural refers to how it was made, not what it is. Natural flavorings and artificial flavorings are chemically identical. You can isolate 15 different chemical compounds from different “natural” sources — tree bark, yeast, lawn clippings — and blend them to create a flavoring that tastes like strawberry. But it will have no strawberry in it, and none of the antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, or minerals. It’s just the experience of strawberry.

What impact do fake flavorings have?
They fool you. They make food you wouldn’t normally eat taste more real and delicious.

You dub it “flavor goggles” in the book: something that makes us crave real food less. Is this America’s actual diet problem?
Those nutritional bogeymen we go after — fat, carbs, there’s a rotating cast — have a physiological effect. Eat a lot of fat, a lot of carbs, and you’re going to gain weight. But in 1960, before we had an obesity problem, all those things existed. What changed? Did we suddenly lose willpower? We have to look at what controls our desire to eat — that’s where flavor comes in. Flavors are an indicator of nutrients. When we take flavors and slice them off the nutrition that they signal — I call it nutritional decapitation — we create food that tells us a thrilling but deceptive lie. Bring it back to carbs: Who would overindulge in crackers and potato chips if they weren’t flavored?

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So what can we do?
Eat real food that tastes good. Check out the farmers market. Buy tomatoes that cost a bit more — they taste better. We’re cheapskates when it comes to food. We buy nice clothes, want a nicer house, but we think food should be as cheap as possible. And read ingredient labels. If you see artificial or natural flavorings, that flavor has been engineered by somebody, not by nature, and you’re getting an experience of nutrition that’s not backed up.

One more thing on flavor degradation: If corn doesn’t taste like corn anymore, what does that mean for my evening glass of bourbon?
Well, whiskeys get a tremendous amount of flavor from the barrels they were aged in. I don’t think there’s been flavor degradation in barrels, because we haven’t screwed up oak the way we’ve screwed up corn.

Mark Schatzker’s The Dorito Effect is out now.

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