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Book Reviews Review: Mark Schatzker’s The Dorito Effect goes deep into the science of food, nutrition and flavour

Mark Schatzker prepares a loaf of home made bread at his home in Toronto, Ontario, Friday April 18, 2014.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Title
The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor
Author
Mark Schatzker
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Simon & Schuster
Pages
272
Price
$32.50​

Teddy-bear stuffing. It's an image author Mark Schatzker calls on more than once in The Dorito Effect when explaining what chicken tastes like today. It is both a disgusting description and an accurate one. Have you tasted unseasoned chicken lately … or in the past 50 years? It tastes like nothing; it tastes, as Julia Child wrote in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, "like the stuffing inside a teddy bear." The fate of our chickens and tomatoes and essentially everything else in our grocery stores – even on the shelves along shops' peripheries that house produce, fresh meats and dairy, what is supposed to be the healthy stuff – is the subject of Schatzker's newest book. Big Food, in search of volume and profit, has zapped our meat and veggies (and everything else) of real flavour, replacing it with, among other things, water and chemicals. But as flavour has disappeared, so has nutrition. As we graze on refined sugars, enriched wheat and GMO produce, as we stick our hands in the chip bag and tell ourselves, "Just one Dorito," then inhale half the bag, our brains get turned on by all the sugary, carby goodness, but our stomachs continue to call out "Feed me, Seymour," because our bodies aren't getting the nutrients they need.

Schatzker's hypothesis is that this is not just a question of taste, but of health. As food technology evolves, our waistlines expand. And while the health community has examined the effects of fat and sugar on the body, it has neglected this aspect of what we're eating. It's flavour that deserves our attention. "Flavour's effects do not end at the mouth and nose. They have only just begun," he writes. Flavour is nature's way of signalling nutrition. It is essential to good food, good health and a good life.

As authors of similar books have done before him, Schatzker isn't shy about revealing what's behind the curtain of the industrial food complex. Egg-laying chickens see their demises in one of a number of gruesome ways: "Their necks are snapped, or they're gassed, or fed, live, into a high-speed meat grinder." More disturbing (to me, anyway): When a foodstuff lists "natural flavours," it's an indication only that natural processes, such as distillation, were used to extract flavour compounds from natural things such as leaves. There probably isn't any fruit in your apple-cinnamon granola bar, just flavouring obtained via "natural" processes that make it taste apple-y and cinnamon-y.

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And like others, Schatzker goes deep into the science of food, nutrition and flavour with explanations about, among other things, the eating habits of goats, the role of palatants and plant secondary compounds that can get dense at times. It is a necessary evil of food writing and probably why, despite books such as this that raise alarms and should all have us scared to walk into a grocery store, we continue to eat what and how we do. An explanation of cravings will never be as satisfying as a two-bite brownie.

Fortunately, Schatzker is acutely aware of this. This isn't a light read by any means, but his tight, clever and funny writing makes it enjoyably digestible. He balances science with sarcasm, and hype with honesty about the battle in which those trying to effect change are engaged. When, as is mentioned in a footnote, the CEO of a chicken company says to a psychobiologist who works in flavour sciences, "If you could give me a flavouring that could make chickens taste like chicken, that I would buy," it's a sign that we need to start paying attention to what we put in our bodies and why, when it makes us feel bad, we continue to do it anyway.

Having the time and money to search out the most flavourful, and thus healthiest, food available is a luxury of the well-to-do, Schatzker admits. His research culminates in a dinner party, organized by him over months and at a cost of hundreds of dollars. It sounds like both the best meal one could have and a nightmare to make happen (he spent more than $400 shipping Garden Gem tomatoes to California from Toronto when other crops failed). But he doesn't want readers to give up hope, and thus provides an appendix filled with practical tips on how to eat more flavourfully.

It's a clever thing Schatzker's done, writing a book about health and nutrition but coating it in an alluring orange-hued title about the junk we put in and on our food. As he admits, it's neither easy nor cheap to find flavourful, nutrient-rich food, but as consumers, we hold the power. "If there is money in real flavour, [Big Food] will give people real flavour," he writes. We can stop eating teddy-bear stuffing and start demanding more of our grocers. We have to, because soon our collective health will insist on it.

Maryam Siddiqi is a Toronto-based food and travel writer.

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