Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Dorito Effect -- Book Review

My lab is interested in fruit flavors, mostly strawberry.  Traditional breeding has made fruits and vegetables bigger, helped them ship better and last longer.  Those are the priorities of the modern food-to-market chain.  

In the process, flavors have been relegated to a genetic afterthought.  Acceptable flavor is all that's required if a piece of fruit looks nice and is cheap to produce, and this is why fruits and veggies lack sensory attributes. Today my lab is using genomics approaches to aid marker-assisted breeding to reverse that trend. 

My lab's efforts are just one little offshoot of research endeavors in the Plant Innovation Center at UF.  There are many faculty interested in how to improve sensory content of fruits and vegetables, so a book on the role of flavor and aroma is always of prime interest. 

So when I received a copy of The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker, I was excited to dig in.  The Dorito Effect uses the disappearance of flavor as a central hypothesis  as to why Americans suffer from food-related health disorders.  The book is well written, with each chapter serving as a separate story under a united, important theme.

We've wrecked good food and made the bad stuff taste good.  The Dorito Effect explores where food flavors went, how it might explain human health issues, and how science is working to get flavors back.  

In short, good-for-you foods have lost flavor.  Meats, veggies and fruits have been bred for production characteristics at the expense of flavors and aromas.  Therefore, these foods are less attractive to the palate.  This is why we cover everything in ranch dressing and A-1 steak sauce.

At the same time, flavor chemistry has been able to tantalize the taste buds with analogs of flavors lost. The essence of fruits and vegetables now coats everything from corn chips to sports drinks.

Why is it tied to health?   Schatzker describes several biological examples where aromas have meaning, and serve as indicators of nutrition.  Could it be that the flavors that once directed us to good food now steer our brains and bodies to less healthy choices?  That is the hypothesis Schatzker dissects.

The central players in the story are goats, chickens and tomatoes.  Studies on goat eating habits revealed that they use aromas as a proxy signaling needed nutrients.  Additional trials on humans, and observations of wasps, reinforce the concepts presented.

Schatzker then details the interesting history of the corporate chicken, moving from tasty farm creature to fast-growing McNugget piñata on two little pencil legs.  Today's genetics and feeding regimens are designed to make big chickens fast, and do not support optimal flavors.

Similarly, the way we grow tomatoes lends to their less-desirable flavors. Schatzker details the demise of the tomato and then follows with a discussion of new varieties (I wrote about them here) that marry production qualities and sensory superiority. 

The book concludes with forward-thinking advice that is simple and implementable.  It also reminds us that much of the Dorito Effect is a human-derived problem that can be fixed by reading labels and making different food choices.  The future also appears to be a good place for flavor and nutrition, as scientists are finding ways to bring the flavors long lost back into our most healthy food products.

The writing was clever, the science was portrayed in a compelling manner, and the work was an outstanding treatment of an interesting, relevant topic in health and nutrition. I never get to read something I want to read, and The Dorito Effect was a great read relevant to my interests.  


Pivní Filosof said...

the Dorito Effect is a human-derived problem that can be fixed by reading labels and making different food choices
I couldn't agree more with that. We stopped buying produce at supermarkets because they lack flavour--the tomatoes taste like plastic, really. Today, most of our produce comes from farmers' markets or small vendors; we also grow some stuff at home. The difference is huge. Likewise with chicken; we try to buy free-range now, it considerably more expensive, but it's worth it.

Anyway, this looks like a very interesting book. I will try to find it.

Unknown said...

Beg to disagree on breeding for flavor. Those of us who are breeding for the processing industry place flavor and color on equal footing with yield and size (for picking efficiency in strawberry). We do have the advantage of our crop being frozen within a couple hours of picking.

Unknown said...

Sorry did not mean to leave that as unknown! Chad Finn

Jim Oliver said...

As far as vegetables tomatoes are the exception. Carrots are much better now, we have a greater variety of vegetable and fruits. Sweet corn is much more consistently good. I just noticed that peperoncini are almost all good now when in the past ever 3rd one would have undesirably tough skin. Citrus are cheap and better due to new varieties (clementines). We can now get broccolirabi and other brassica not available in the past.
The book could hardly be more wrong.

The real cause of obesity:

Obesity is the only food-related health disorder Americans suffer more of.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Jim. I do think carrots taste better today. I also believe sweet corn varieties available today are far more tasty than what was available when I was growing up in the 1960's and 70's. I do find that sweet corn at the farmer's market is consistently better than sweet corn at a grocery store, but then you are not necessarily comparing apples to apples. The farmers market vendor does not have to worry about shelf life and the corn was picked likely the same day or the previous evening so it is fresher, what is on the grocer's shelf might have been there a few days and the grocer is understandably more concerned with varieties that have longer shelf life. I don't go out of my way for organics, but there is a farmers market on Sunday mornings where most of the venders are organic located along the route to church. It is very convenient for my wife and I stop there after church. I will say that the most incredible cantalope I have ever tasted came from an organic vendor at that market, but I have yet to get a sweet corn from an organic vendor that was above average. To be fair, I don't know if the organic vendors' corn I have sampled thus far was irrigated, but I live in an area that gets enough rain that most sweet corn, including conventional farmers market growers, is not irrigated. I have purchased sweet corn at other farmers markets where the vendor was not organic and I thought the corn was better. By far, the most incredible sweet corn I have had were two different times I was given corn grown in the same field as conventional field corn. In both cases, the corn was grown under irrigation.

No doubt, the tomato varieties available in grocery stores are indeed bland and disappointing in color, texture and other ways. Those have been the unfortunate tradeoff for varieties that have longer shelf life and can withstand a lot of handling. If you want to start a grocery store where you end up throwing out half the tomatoes every other day because the varieties have no shelf life, you are free to do so.

I also agree that there is a greater volume and variety of fruits and vegetables available at the typical grocery store today than I remember as a kid and young adult. Part of that may be due to size, I live in an urban area now as compared to a rural area where the grocer may not have had the customer base to support carrying a larger selection, but I do believe it is in part due to genetics and storage that allows for these foods to be shipped further and still edible beyond a seasonal window.

Anonymous said...

Human nature also has a lot to do with perception of wholesomeness and nutrition. About 5 years ago, I attended a conference where one of the speakers was a local grower who has a farm stand, participates in a couple farmer's markets and who also supplies some produce to some area grocers. The grower mentioned that the sweet corn he delivers to the grocer he cuts the ends off before delivering in order to eliminate any worms that might be there. The corn he sells at the farmers market or his farm stand, he does not cut the ends off. ,He fund that if people find a worm in an ear purchased at a grocery store, they perceive that the corn is somehow inferior, and if they demand perfection if the money goes to a business like a grocery. However, if it is purchased at a farmers market or a farm stand, the public is much more tolerant of the worm and the occasional presence of a worm might even be perceived as an indicator of naturalness and freshness. The same grower, the same variety of corn, the same field, the same management, the same incidence of worms, and picked the same day, yet the public perceives sweet corn bought in one venue differently than it perceives sweet corn bought in another venue.

Julee K said...

Great post. Great topic. This is worthy of more exploration. Our "flavor" mechanisms are all messed up here in the US.

I was recently in SE Asia and noticed that obesity and morbid obesity is non-existent there. I also noticed that the poorest of people in SE Asia eat better than we do in the US. Street food fair includes fresh cut pineapple, watermelon and other tantalizing produce. On just about any street, for a buck you can get a fresh noodle dish with a protein and vegetable. I didn't see any elephant ears or corn dogs.

My takeaway is that our food desires/choices are askew here.

Gomer Kierkegaard said...

All of your assessments of food quality are completely subjective, unsupported, and none of them have anything to do with nutrition, which is the thrust of the book. You may wish to read the book before you dismiss it. Linking to a 46 min podcast is hardly an effective and cogent response.