Book review: The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

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The Dorito Effect is an engaging book put forward to convince us that the key to solving the world’s health crisis lies in the neglected relation between nutrition and flavour. As the author of the book, Schatsker, puts it, we have “interfered with a highly sophisticated chemical language that evolved to guide our nutrition”. The book focuses on how advancements in agricultural technology and food science have made seemingly healthy food become more and more like junk food. Therefore, tricking our brains into loving nutritionally void food, causing us to overeat. This book will surely interest those seeking to lead a healthier lifestyle as well as others who value food sustainability. Filled with comprehensive historical and scientific evidence, The Dorito Effect rationalizes the food crisis from a fresh perspective. It takes us on a fascinating journey of how we got to this point and gives suggestions on where we should head for. However, the book omits other probable explanations of why we overeat.

 

In an effort to increase production yield, disease resistance and appearance of food, mankind has dedicated years of plant and animal breeding to achieve the results we have today. We have been extremely successful in developing effective pesticides, antibiotics and chemical growth enhancers, which increase crop yield and make formerly luxury food like meats affordable to most. However, these modern methods of production have led to a major depletion of nutritional values in food and flavour dilution. Several new studies done by various biochemists and psychologists mentioned in the book have revealed that our bodies innately delights in certain flavours. Major flavour and fragrance companies have exploited scientific advancements such as gas chromatography to separate and identify different chemical compounds. This has allowed them to synthetically engineer flavourings to mask the blandness in our food today. Interestingly, Schatsker did not propose returning to ancient agricultural ways but suggested improving modern artificial selection processes.

 

The book has 9 chapters in total. It starts off with the history of mass production of food and the search for flavours. Telling us how we managed to extract essential molecules to create the perfect aroma in flavourings. Schatsker mentions that the big food industries have “created the snack equivalent of crystal meth and gotten us all hooked” reminding us how addictive artificial flavourings can be. The middle section then continues by explaining the nutritional wisdom we have innately and why we should not ignore it. Since we have fooled ourselves into eating nutritional void food, the result is bingeing in an attempt to consume nutrition, which brought about the epidemics of obesity. Last but not least, the book enlightens us with a “delicious” cure which could be the future of modern farming.

 

Using chickens an example, Schatsker has done a remarkable job at investigating how the changes in our food happened at the beginning. Chickens today do not taste anything like the chickens of the past. Their taste descended into blandness about 60 years ago. Farmers started to raise chicks in identical pens and fed them a calculated, standard diet consisting of protein, fat and fibre. The growing chicks were kept indoors to conserve their energy and minimise feeding. By 1973, chickens only needed 60 days before becoming full adult size. Today, chickens manage to weigh 0.7kg heavier, while eating on a third less feed and taking only 35 days to do so. According to a paper in the journal Poultry Science, if humans grew as fast as these chickens, “a 3kg newborn baby would weigh 300kg after 2 months”. Since these chickens consume such a small variety of food and are essentially “big babies”, their meat taste bland. We then try to compensate the taste with artificial sauces and dressings.

 

The middle section dives into explaining the wisdom of flavour that animals have. This theory was supported by various experiments and studies done on animals and plants. For example, European songbirds preferred food with chemical compounds called flavonoids, which actually boost their immune system, and when tiger moth caterpillars were infected by parasites, they developed a preference for plants containing alkaloids, which are toxic to those parasites.

 

In the last few chapters, the book mainly discusses about improving modern artificial selection processes. Personally, I had hoped that the book would touch on other probable explanations for the obesity crisis. Some possible reasons for the rise of obesity as a collective society today may be due to changes in lifestyle and trend. Sedentary office work and decreasing average sleep hours could perhaps contribute to an increase in weight and obesity. However, Schatsker omits mentioning any sociological arguments.

 

Nevertheless, Schatzker has written The Dorito Effect very lucidly. The book is filled with plenty of compelling scientific evidence to support its arguments. Unlike much of today’s mass produced, genetically modified food which usually leaves us feeling unsatisfied, The Dorito Effect is easily digested and palatable.

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