Older people often comment that today’s chicken, tomatoes, or other foods don’t taste as good as they once did. According to food and travel writer Mark Schatzker, those aren’t just wistful thoughts based on nostalgia or the result of aging taste buds. Instead, he argues, they point to a true failure of the food system. “Stuff doesn’t taste the way it used to and it hasn’t for a long time,” Schatzker says. In his new book, “The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor,” the Toronto-based Schatzker, 41, examines how a decades-long quest to create inexpensive, plentiful food has robbed it of both nutrition and inherent flavor which is then replaced with flavorings created in the lab.
Q. Why doesn’t food have as much natural flavor as it once had?
A. We’ve been on a mission to make food more abundant and cheaper for about 60 years. We succeeded, but we paid for it in flavor. We bred tomatoes to be incredibly productive, have a great shelf life, and be disease-resistant. But over uncountable generations, flavor has gotten lost. We have bred chickens to be incredibly productive — they grow about three times faster than they used to. They hoover up an unending quantity of soy and corn and they taste like cardboard. Chicken is cheap and abundant, but you have to flavor the hell out of it to get it to taste like anything.
Q. What are the problems beyond lack of taste?
A. Tomatoes aren’t just bland, there are less vitamins and minerals in them than there used to be. The bigger problem is that when whole foods taste like cardboard, we are forced to make them palatable by doing all sorts of nutritionally terrible things to them. We dump ranch dressing on our cardboard tomatoes and we dump barbecue sauce on our chicken. When ingredients are great, there’s very little you have to do to them.
Q. Have our tastes changed?
A. We’re essentially programmed to go where the pleasure is. We might find it by dumping ranch dressing on our tomatoes or by eating fast food or a microwave meal or crackers that have been flavored. The reason flavoring is so seductive is because it is the language of pleasure in food. Flavor is also an indication of the nutrition of the food. If you make something taste like a strawberry or a tomato, you’re creating the illusion of nutrition but not delivering it. You’re delivering a huge hit of calories. That’s how we incentivize ourselves to over-consume.
Q. Why did you connect the growth of added flavoring to the Dorito?
A. The original Dorito bombed. It was just a salted tortilla chip and no one was particularly interested in eating it. What made it so successful was the decision to flavor it. The first was taco flavored. What allowed them to do it were advances in flavor technology. The first commercial gas chromatograph went on sale in 1955. That led scientists to unpack these microscopic chemical compounds that give food its flavor and make it so alluring and delicious. For the vast majority of human existence, flavor was determined by nature. Almost overnight, flavor was determined by the folks who were working in marketing.
Q. How has the science of flavor changed since then?
A. They’ve gotten much better at it. The other way it’s changed is that flavorings aren’t just in junk food anymore. I don’t argue that we’re eating too many Doritos. I argue that on some level everything is turning into a Dorito. You can now find raw chicken with flavoring in it — the same goes for beef and pork. There’s a ton of flavoring in yogurt. There’s flavoring in soy milk, butter, and herbal tea. We’ve created this totally fake universe of food. It still tastes like food, but it’s not giving us what we need.
Q. Are natural flavorings a better solution?
A. There’s nothing “natural” about natural flavorings. A natural flavor is every bit as chemically pure, engineered, and contrived as an artificial flavor. In many cases, the chemicals are exactly the same. It’s just a question of how you make it. When you see natural flavorings, don’t think of a forest or a meadow or an orchard. Think of a lab with beakers full of clear liquid because that’s what it is.
Q. Is it possible to avoid all these added flavorings?
‘Flavor is . . . an indication of the nutrition of the food. If you make something taste like a strawberry or a tomato, you’re creating the illusion of nutrition but not delivering it.’
A. People should shop for the food they eat the same way they shop for wine and beer, which is to say always hunting for something delicious. Maybe that means trying a different market or going to a farmers’ market. The more signals we send to the food industry and farmers that we care about flavor, the more they’re going to meet that need. Think about what the craft beer aisle looked like in the ’80s or ’90s and what it looks like now. We sent a message to the brewers of America that we want beer to have more flavor and it’s a beer lovers’ paradise. We should make it a food lovers’ paradise.Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at Michael.Floreak@gmail.com.