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.