Review and Critique of the Dorito Effect … Book Report
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Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect: The Surprising Truth about Food and Flavor, published by Simon & Shuster in 2015, is described by the publisher as " A lively and important argument from an award-winning journalist proving that the key to reversing America's health crisis lies in the overlooked link between nutrition and flavor." The book posits that "we have been led astray by the growing divide between flavor -- the tastes we crave -- and the underlying nutrition" and that "since the late 1940s, we have been slowly leeching flavor out of the food we grow" (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Thus the central argument in Schatzker's argument is that there is a growing disconnect between the food we grow and flavor, and this is creating the need for unhealthy replacements for that flavor, invariably coming in the form of unhealthy fats, salt and sugar.
The key to the effectiveness of this book was always going to be Schatzker's ability to link modern agricultural practices, a lack of flavor in food, and then obesity. The obesity angle is perhaps the most difficult one for Schatzker to address, and the most tangential. It is, however, an angle that plays well. It is not hard to imagine why Schatzker needed to add this angle to his hypothesis -- publishers love the obesity crisis angle. It affects a lot of people, and is a great source of controversy and discourse. Since Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, the obesity angle has made for good sales, and publishers naturally eat that up.
Sorry, I had to.
The first two premises are the easier for Schatzker to link. Intuitively, it is easy to reconcile the logic that when you breed plants for resistance to disease and for yield, with other traits subordinated, that those other traits may erode over time. In any grocery store, the produce looks fabulous. We know that there is significant emphasis on crops that deliver yield, and we know that pest resistance is big business -- the whole point of genetic modification to this point seems to have been to deal with pests, by altering genes to make plants resistant to poisons. It is said that people eat with their eyes, and surely that is how people shop. The prettier produce gets purchased first, by all but the most discerning of consumers. It is not hard to see why -- most shoppers have never grown these plants in their lives. They have no idea what these plants look like in their natural environment, nor do they know what they are really supposed to taste like.
Farmers are in business. They have families to feed, equipment to pay off, and kids to put through college. So they grow what sells. A population disconnected from agricultural production buys pretty food, and has little concept of the wide diversity of flavors and textures that food can have. So the farmers produce what sells -- food that is stable, looks nice, and delivers a relatively consistent yield. That people know little about food's diverse flavor and textural profiles has to do with the disconnect between consumers and agricultural production. The Depression took people off the farms, and the postwar industrial boom kept them in the cities. Agricultural production, once something most people knew about, was now left to a small group of farmers, and eventually to an even smaller group of major agricultural companies. This is precisely the reason that Schatzker's argument begins in the late 1940s -- the economic and social trends that brought us to our current point began with the end of the war.
Schatzker's claim that this food has less flavor that food before may at one point have been difficult to prove. It is easy to say, for example, that having not been around to eat food pre-1940s that I have no idea what it was like. However, we can still travel to countries where food is produced in older ways, where there is diverse range of heirloom varieties, and where food still has an abundance of flavor, in all its imperfect glory. These countries are not exactly on the far banks of the Congo either; we only need look to Italy, Mexico and France for the type of produce we once enjoyed here in America. Or, better yet, farmers markets and community gardens. This is not to dismiss the importance of yield -- crop failures were the bane of human existence prior to the Agricultural Revolution. Famine was not uncommon. Yet, pushing too far in the direction of yield has taken us so far from our agricultural roots that we are genuinely surprised, amazed, and happy to pay a premium for heirloom produce, or anything with flavor. We are only today, in the early 21st century, rediscovering our connection to our agricultural past.
Having credibly established that the modernization of agriculture has reduced flavor, since that is nowhere near the most important economic trait of a crop, Schatzker turns his attention to the link between these bland foods and obesity. His premise is that we eat more, craving the satisfaction that wholesome, natural, pre-1940s foods used to deliver. Indeed, many foods serve as reasonable arguments in favor -- food so bland is has to be packed with fat, sugar and salt just to be palatable. None of those things in excess are good for us, and the utterly poor quality of the food we eat leads us to eat more. We crave more, Schatzker posits, because the food from our agricultural production fails to satisfy.
This is a more difficult premise to prove. The obesity epidemic is well-studied, and the findings have a tendency to be inconclusive. There are other potential explanatory factors, to be sure. Further, this is a hypothesis that screams for rigorous academic testing -- are people eating more calories that we used to? If so, why? Maybe we eat more because we can -- wealthier people have always consumed more calories than the poor. Yet, in America, the poor are the most likely to be obese. This tends to support Schatzker's hypothesis, though by no means does it prove it. So the issue here is that Schatzker has a theory that links blandness in food to overeating and that in turn to obesity. It is a difficult link to make, and I do not feel that Schatzker has done so effectively. Emotionally, I buy into this argument, but at the end of the day hooking me with pathos while leaving logos and ethos unresolved does not a compelling argument make.
While the link that Schatzker seeks between banality and overeating is ultimately unconvincing for lack of academic rigor in creating this link, the first premise is entirely reasonable. The narrative of the book rests on having the obesity link, because that sells. But the link between modern agriculture and bland agricultural product is perfectly reasonable, and valid. We should care about the fact that our food so often tastes of nothing. We should care that unhealthy additives are added back to food sometimes, just so that it is palatable. We should care that people are so disconnected that can hardly recognize more than a couple of crops in the field, and have no idea what they are supposed to taste like. These things matter. So does the loss of biodiversity that comes from modern agricultural practice. Even if Schatzker wanted to steer entirely clear of the GMO debate, and save that for another book, there was enough to work with here on the first premise alone, without having to add the spurious alleged link between bland food and obesity. There are a lot of things wrong with the agricultural disconnect, so no suspension of disbelief is required to sell that narrative.
It is that second narrative, much weaker than the first, and seemingly in the book mainly to ensure that is sufficiently topical to get published, that undermines Schatzker. The reality is that bland food does not need to be. Crop diversity is a beautiful thing, and so are crops grown in natural ways. Intense, unique flavors and textures are something that we, as wealthy people in this world, should consume as our foodstuffs. We should be the ones making the rest of the world jealous with the amazing variety of food befitting the richest nation on earth. Instead, we squander our bounty on the pursuit of yield and superficial beauty above all else. Our vapid, bimbo airhead tomatoes and peppers are sad; our reliance on cheap unhealthy flavor additives is a weakness; and ultimately we are anything but the envy of the world when it comes to food -- our bad taste, ignorance and addiction to profit over quality of life are symbolic of failure, and it simply does not need to be this way. That is the point Schatzker had evidence for, and should have hammered home. There is real power is pursuing that first premise as far as possible, instead of undermining… [END OF PREVIEW]
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