It’s no secret that obesity is a growing epidimic, but it may have less to due with carbs, fat, sugar and salt and more to do with flavor according to a new book. In The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker details how our taste buds have been consistently manipulated to the point where we’re wired to crave the artificial over the natural. He also explains how healthy food is becoming more and more like junk food with water replacing nutrients in many of the country’s most popular produce.
We spoke with the author about what we can do to regain control of our taste buds, the nature versus nurture debate and some of the most surprising things he learned in researching his most recent book.
theFashionSpot: When it comes to taste buds, what’s your take on nature versus nurture?
Mark Schatzker: It’s both. We are all born with incredibly powerful flavor-sensing equipment — the nose and mouth. Some of what we taste is determined by our genes. For example, supertasters are more sensitive to bitter flavors. But so much of what we like or don’t like is determined by experience. You acquire a palate similar to how you acquire language — it’s the product of a multitude of flavor experiences that stretches all the way back to when you were in your mother’s womb. What’s interesting to me, and something I don’t think we spend enough time talking about, is that your palate can and does change with time. I grew up hating vegetables. Now, I love them.
tFS: Any tips for parents? Anything they can do to help “manipulate” their children’s taste buds to crave healthier foods?
MS: As a parent myself, I know how easy it is to tie yourself in a knot of worry over the fact that your child isn’t eating enough vegetables, or doesn’t get enough protein. It’s very important to recognize kids have different palates that reflect their different bodies. I walk down a hallway, whereas my 6-year-old sprints — maybe it’s not so surprising he’s into carb loading. Variety is your ally. Put out lots of different kinds of food — especially a variety of fruits and vegetables — and I think you’ll find kids make some pretty bizarre food choices, but they’re by no means terrible. So if your child doesn’t like the pasta you made for dinner, don’t panic and microwave a hot dog or a frozen pizza. Instead, slice up some fruit and see if they want to dip it in peanut butter or something. The key in all of this is to give your kids “real” food. Be suspicious of ingredients that list artificial flavors or natural flavors (which are by no means natural). That indicates a product where the flavor has been created in some lab and is not the true expression of the plant or meat you’re serving.
tFS: What are the major ways big corporations are working to manipulate our taste buds and “making” us consume more unhealthy foods than we may even be aware of?
MS: Very simply, corporations add all sorts of chemicals to food to trigger your flavor receptors. These include things like MSG, hydrolyzed yeast and everyone’s favorite, sugar! But they also include artificial and natural flavors, which are chemical formulations that can make a sugary drink taste like an orange, or a yogurt with zero fruit that tastes like blueberry. In nature, flavor goes hand in hand with nutrition. When we create fake flavors, we create food that is thrilling to eat, but isn’t delivering the nutrition. Very simply, if it wasn’t for flavor technology, junk food would taste terrible.
tFS: Have the technological leaps in the food industry affected the U.S. in a worse way than other developed countries? For example, we’ve noticed that when we’re in Tel Aviv all the fruit — organic or not — is smaller than what we have in the States and that overall, the food seems more flavorful.
MS: That’s the second time today someone has mentioned the superb quality of produce in Israel. I think it’s also true in Italy and Japan and what’s most interesting about these countries is that the food is outstanding yet everyone is much thinner than they are here. This is significant. For an awfully long time, we’ve been telling ourselves that we’re surrounded by too much delicious food and we can’t control ourselves. Well, what about these places where the food tastes even better and yet somehow they don’t eat so much of it? The difference comes down to real versus fake flavor. In North America, we’re not nearly suspicious enough of fake flavors. They are put in a bewildering number of products — even raw chicken is often flavored now. But the other problem is that the flavor of real food, like strawberries, chicken and tomatoes, has been lost. Whereas Italians will pay more for tomatoes that taste gloriously like tomatoes, we just want tomatoes that cost 99 cents per pound. Who wants to eat whole foods if whole foods taste like cardboard? No one. Which is why we end up glopping ranch dressing all over those 99 cent tomatoes. So to answer your question, technological leaps in flavor technology and agriculture have definitely hurt the U.S. more than other developed countries. And it shows.
tFS: What are some of the most surprising things you learned in researching this book?
MS: I was amazed to learn that British sailors suffering from scurvy craved fruits and vegetables. And when they got on land, they greedily gobbled them up, thus curing themselves. We so often think our food cravings are completely out of sync with our nutritional needs. Maybe it’s time we started “listening” to flavor.
tFS: What can the average person looking to improve their diet do when all the forces, including the government, lobbyists and big corporations seem to be working against us?
MS: My advice to people is to be guided by real flavor. Avoid cheap but deceptive thrills in the form of natural or artificial flavors and instead buy real food that tastes the most profoundly and thrillingly like what it is. Buy the best apples, strawberries and grapes you can afford. Go to a farmers market and buy pastured pork or grass-fed beef. No only will your food taste better, it’ll be easier to cook and you’ll feel better.
tFS: When it comes to low-quality, “tasteless” food, what tends to be the worst offenders?
MS: Tomatoes and chicken. They taste like cardboard.
tFS: Any tips for sharpening our taste buds, so, for example, we won’t need as much salt, sugar, etc.?
MS: My advice is eat really good quality, real food and over time your palate will change. It won’t happen overnight, but with time you’ll find that junk food doesn’t taste very good anymore. Every few weeks, I’ll get a rapini craving and stir-fry an entire head, blitzing it with pepper flakes and sea salt and then drizzling a little olive oil over top. This was unthinkable five years ago. But now, I truly crave it. I still love steak, too, of course.