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Mark Schatzker on Flavor and Food

Mark Schatzker is a freelance writer, radio columnist for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, and author who writes about food, flavor, and nutrition. His most recent book is The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, in which he describes a food industry interested in quantity, shelf-life, and disease resistance to the exclusion of flavor and nutrition. He recently spoke with news editor Art Keller about the consequences of this, which may be further-reaching than you think. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Art Keller: I have to say, your book made me look at our supermarket aisles in a whole new way. What inspired you to write The Dorito Effect?

Mark Schatzker: You know, the main thing was really curiosity. Prior to writing The Dorito Effect, I’d written a book about steak. A book that was a lot of fun to write, but a book that made me notice a few things and made me ask a few interesting questions. What I noticed was that the vast, vast majority of beef that the world consumes today is much blander than it used to be. We cook steak differently. We didn’t use to have rubs and sauces and things like that. It used to just be salt and pepper.

I’d visit cattle ranchers, and they’d tell me that pregnant cows intuitively somehow know to eat more protein than heifers that aren’t pregnant, because they have a greater protein requirement to support the fetus. And this made me ask all sorts of questions about why does food have flavor, why do some things seem delicious, and really, how has that changed? And broadly speaking, there’s two complementary trends. One is that all the whole foods that we grow, the things that come off farms, strawberries, cucumbers, chickens, tomatoes, everything is getting blander. And as it’s getting blander, it’s getting less nutritious. On the other side of things, since about the 1960s, we’ve gotten very good at making things taste delicious, due to huge leaps forward in flavor technology, which is to say, the ability to imbue foods with chemicals that make them seem delicious. And this, to me, tells us so much about where food has gone wrong. Because if you look at flavor as the incentive to eat, it’s literally transferred from wholesome things like fruits and vegetables to Doritos, potato chips, soft drinks.

Mark Schatzker

Mark Schatzker

AK: Right. One of the things that was most striking to me was the description of the term that you will see on food: “natural flavor.” So, explain how I can buy, for example, a strawberry yogurt, and it’ll say “natural flavorings” on the ingredient list, and I could make the false conclusion that real strawberries were somehow involved in making it taste like strawberries.

MS: Right. Most people don’t really probe deeply what it means, they just see that word and it sort of allays their fears, that this is something wholesome. So, I’m going to give you a long answer, ’cause we need to have a little history.

In the mid 1950s, the first-ever commercial gas chromatograph went on sale. And this was a big deal, because prior to then, scientists really had no idea what made food flavorful. I mean, we knew about things like sweetness and sour. But so much of the richness and nuance of food comes from aromas, which you smell through the back of your nose as you’re eating. And up until the 1950s, we had no idea what was doing that. We had a few very basic fake flavors, things that we discovered almost by accident. But for the most part, if you wanted to experience the flavor of orange back then, you had to eat an orange.

The gas chromatograph suddenly meant that scientists could identify the complex chemicals that exist in food in tiny quantities, parts per million, parts per billion, even parts per trillion. And they finally knew what it was that made coffee taste like coffee and orange taste like orange and chicken taste like chicken. Well, it wasn’t long after they did that, that they started manufacturing these chemicals in industrial facilities and we started adding them to food. Now, for a very long time, these would be listed as artificial flavors. This always threw people into a panic, ’cause they think, “It’s artificial, it must be terrible for me, it must be giving me cancer.”

So the flavor industry more recently said, “Well, is there some way we could find a natural source for these things?” So what they did is they went out, quote, “in nature,” and found sources for let’s say, the same chemicals that you would find that evoke the experience of strawberry. And they would find, well, you can get one of these chemicals in grass clippings. And you can get another one of these chemicals in let’s say, a bark from a tree. And you can make another one of these chemicals by genetically modifying a yeast. And then you get all these chemicals together and you’ve got your strawberry flavor. And you get to list it as “natural flavor” because at some point, these chemicals did come from something that grew in nature. So it’s not technically wrong, but I would say it’s highly misleading, for the same reason you could call morphine natural, ’cause it comes from a plant.

AK: Yes. I actually knew this was going on in the craft beer industry because my brother has worked in it for a long time, and he said there were up to, I want to say 35 different chemicals and additives that you can put in American beer and still list it as “all natural, no preservatives.” And we’re talking about foaming agents and head-stabilizing agents and a bunch of other things. And the reason they have to do that, is that they’re using a lot of cheap ingredients in the mass-produced beer, and so it tastes like nothing. It’s a beer that’s brewed with corn and rice as opposed to wheat or barley or hops or the other things that craft beers use, and that’s why it needs all these things to make it have a head, to make it the right color, to give it some semblance of flavor. But talk a bit about the concept of dilution, and how it relates both to flavor and nutrition.

MS: Yeah, I think this is a really important subject. We notice this dilution that’s taken place when we buy supermarket tomatoes, for example, or supermarket strawberries. Those are two really good examples where they look enticing, a red color, and then you bite into them and you’re totally underwhelmed. Strawberries that taste like water, tomatoes that taste like plastic. The reason this has happened is because we’ve intensely bred these over the years to be hyper-productive. If you look at the amount of tomatoes we can grow on an acre of land, it is more than ten times the quantity of tomatoes coming from that acre of land than in 1932. And we’ve paid for it. We’ve paid for it in flavor, we’ve also paid for it in nutrition, which is to say that these whole foods that we’re growing are getting less dense in the micronutrients, vitamins, minerals. So whole foods are in some level getting less wholesome.

It turns out that these micronutrients actually have no flavor. They’re almost totally inert. Which is one of the reasons nutritionists have never really put much stock in the experience of flavor, ’cause it seems chemically entirely divorced from nutrition. But it turns out that we found out that this really isn’t the case.

So there’s a guy at the University of Florida named Harry Klee. And in 1988 he was hired by Monsanto to create a better tomato. And they thought back then that the reason tomatoes were so awful is because they were picked green and they were stored in warehouses and then they would be fogged with ethylene gas to make them ripen. So they thought, “Well, if we can create a tomato that ripens slowly, we can get it kind of half-ripe on the vine, and then ship it to the supermarket and it’ll taste great.” So Harry Klee did just this for them. And what he found was that it didn’t really work. He created a GMO tomato that ripened more slowly, but it didn’t taste a whole lot better than the other tomatoes.

Well, at this point, he had kind of a big realization that the problems with tomato flavor went a lot deeper than just being picked green. And he’s essentially devoted the last twenty years plus of his life to cracking the mystery of what’s wrong with tomatoes. And what he’s found, two things. The first is that by intensely breeding tomatoes to be more productive, to be more disease-resistant, and to have a longer shelf life, we’ve aggressively selected for these traits, and in doing so, and by not selecting flavor, we’ve lost flavor.

But there’s an even more interesting insight that Harry Klee had. When he started to figure out the flavor compounds in tomatoes that were giving tomatoes their deliciousness, he thought, “How is the tomato making this flavor?” ’Cause he thought, “If I can figure out how the tomato makes the flavor, and I can figure out what genes are doing that, then I can start to try and single out these genes, and breed better tasting tomatoes.”

He and a scientist named Steve Goff looked at how tomatoes make their flavors, and they found there’s about 26 flavor compounds in tomatoes that make us go, “Wow, that’s an awesome tomato!” And in every single case, he found that the tomato made that flavor compound from an essential nutrient, so things like carotenoids, which we get vitamin A from, or omega-3s, or essential amino acids. Our body does not have the ability to perceive the amino acid, the carotenoids, and the Omega-3s in tomatoes, but we do have the ability to perceive the flavors that are associated with them. So in that regard, it has found this link between flavor and nutrition. What we do is we pick up the vapors that come off the tomato when we smell it and when we chew it. And what we found is that there’s a direct relationship between how that tomato tastes and how nutritious it is.

AK: I would say one of the most exciting parts of the book is your description of Harry Klee’s tomato research. What’s a little bit depressing was his efforts to get it adopted in the commercial tomato-growing community, despite the outstanding flavor and good yield of his newest version of tomato. Has there been any progress on that horizon?

MS: Yeah, that’s an interesting subject in and of itself. He’s developed a tomato, it’s called the Garden Gem, and it’s not genetically modified, it’s just a straight-up cross. He crossed his best-tasting heirloom with a modern variety that has all these modern traits that we love: yield, disease resistance. And what he got was a tomato that tastes as good as the heirloom parent but has all these modern characteristics. So it’s like a miracle tomato! And yet, it’s hard to get the rest of the world to see that. And it shows us to what degree our system has become perverted and how flavor is just not in the equation.

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Harry Klee’s approached growers, and he said, “Hey, try my tomato,” and a bunch of them said, “Sure, you know, I’ll plant a hundred plants, we’ll see how it does.” And they say, “Yeah, it’s a great-tasting tomato,” but then they say, “You know, it’s a little bit smaller, and that means my labor costs go up because it takes five plucks to get one pound versus three plucks.” I mean, it seems almost demented, but when you realize how tight the margins are, this is where their profit is. And then they will also tell you, “I can deliver tons and tons of tomatoes to any supermarket. The supermarkets don’t care if they’re flavorful.” There’s no box to tick that says flavor, there’s no flavor bonus that will give you an extra 500 bucks ’cause your tomatoes were delicious this week. So there’s no incentive for them to grow tomatoes. So it’s been very hard to get industry and supermarkets and even consumers to wake up and say, “You know, hey folks, maybe paying 99 cents for food isn’t the best strategy.”

That said, since I wrote the book, I think it is starting to change through a lot of hard work. Harry Klee recently had an article in Science, and that started to get some attention. I live in Toronto and I’ve gotten several farmers now growing the Garden Gem and another variety, and people love it. The online grocery delivery company Fresh Direct, which is based in New York, will be selling some Garden Gems this summer. So I think things are starting to change, but it’s certainly not easy.

AK: Yeah, that was definitely my impression, that the growth of the enjoyment of delicious tomatoes is kind of effectively being blocked by the food procurement system in North America.

MS: And also, you know, some of the blame does lie on us. We have to recognize that every time we go to a supermarket and we buy something on sale, something priced really low, we are voting with our dollars and we’re telling industry we value quantity over quality.

AK: One of the things that struck me, especially when you were talking about eating some heirloom chicken, is how much more satisfying it was despite eating only a tiny bit of it. And so I was wondering, have you done the math on industrial farming versus slower-growth farming, factoring in the conception that the way we use food now, we eat so much more of it than is good for us, and on top of that we waste about one-third of the food that is grown? It seems that if we could eat less but be satisfied by less and stop throwing away so much, we could actually afford to rely more on slower-growing breeds of chicken and tomatoes and what have you, which would allow more flavor and more nutrition.

MS: That’s a great question, and this is something I experienced personally. I got a farmer friend to grow some of these heirloom chickens I talk about in the book, and an heirloom chicken is essentially the kind of chicken our grandparents or great-grandparents were eating in the 1940s. A chicken in the 1940s would have been around 16 or 18 weeks old when you bought it at the butcher shop. A chicken that you buy today is about six weeks old. And a chicken today will actually be bigger. So this shows you just how radically we’ve changed chicken genetics.

However, this chicken meat isn’t anything like the chicken of yore. It’s nutritionally different. If you look at nutritional density, you can literally see it in the skin, it’ll have a yellow skin and you’re literally seeing carotenoids. It’ll have more omega-3s. But the biggest difference is the flavor. If you look at old cookbooks, you look up a recipe for fried chicken, you don’t see 11 different herbs and spices. You see salt and pepper.

So if you look at a modern recipe for fried chicken by someone like Thomas Keller, they brine the chicken with all sorts of stuff, you know, garlic, onions, bay leaves. They will make like a biscuit crust that will have garlic powder and cayenne pepper and all sorts of stuff, and then they deep fry it, so you got this really crunchy exterior. Back in the day, they just dredged chicken in flour, with salt and pepper and shallow-fried it, so you didn’t have this really thick skin. The description I’m giving, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, the modern one must taste way better.” It doesn’t. The heirloom chicken has such a profound, warm and satisfying chickeny flavor that, until you taste it, you really can’t understand it.

But the most interesting thing about this is how satisfying it is. And I cook heirloom chickens all the time now. One or two pieces will totally satisfy you. You’ll eat it and you’ll think, “My gosh, this is so delicious,” but you don’t have this weird compulsion to keep stuffing your face. You’re just satisfied. Real food, I think, is satisfying in a way that processed food just can’t be.

AK: I would say that lack of satisfaction is just on display every time you walk around. You see the profound obesity problem both in the US and to a lesser extent Canada—it’s chronic overeating across entire sectors of society, and as far as I know, you’re the first person to make the link between a lack of flavor and stuffing our faces to chase a satisfaction that we can’t get, because we’re losing the quality of the food. I like the Julia Child quote about what the modern chicken tastes like.

MS: Yeah, well it’s interesting, she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking [in 1961]. And this was just about a decade into our effort to, quote, “improve chicken.” And she noticed even then that these modern chickens were cheap and plump and wonderful looking, but they taste, she said, “like teddy bear stuffing.” It’s sort of like a Dorito, in the sense that it’s just a vehicle on which you impose flavor, and if you didn’t put that flavor on, it wouldn’t taste like anything.

Contrast that with a real chicken, where, you know, people talk about heirloom chickens are more expensive—and they are, there’s no question they’re more expensive—but they go farther. You eat less of it, but you can also use them for so much more. I roasted a chicken a couple of weeks ago, fed the whole family, and then there was this carcass left over that still had meat on it. I made a stock from it, I picked the meat off, and I made a risotto with it with some mushrooms that I picked. And the flavor of that risotto was spectacular. And all I could think was, I got two amazing meals out of this one small chicken, which, per pound, does cost more than a modern broiler. But they were such satisfying, delicious meals, and there’s no way you could get that mileage out of a modern chicken.

AK: All right, explain for us why it’s important to get real flavor back in our food, and what people can do to do that.

MS: We have this obsession in North America with talking about nutrients. We think that if I cut out carbs, or if I cut out fat, or if I count calories, I can perfectly cater my body’s needs. I don’t think there’s any evidence that anyone can do that. But I think the body already has a good system to do this, which is flavor. And getting back to what I said earlier about cows that intuitively know that they need to eat more protein, I think we have this ability too. We’ve screwed it up though, ’cause we’ve robbed our food of flavor, and we’ve also put flavor chemicals in the wrong foods so we’ve literally crossed wires.

Flavor is the incentive to eat. Very, very few of us can exist in a world where our food isn’t delicious. So we have to get deliciousness back to where it should be, because that’s the key to getting people to eat more healthily. If you go back to that example of the tomato, what do you do with a bland tomato? You end up dumping ranch dressing all over it. But if you’ve got a great-tasting tomato, it just needs a little sprinkling of sea salt, maybe a little olive oil, and to put ranch dressing on it would be a crime, because you’d be covering up this flavor.

So when you get flavor back into the foods that it’s supposed to be in, it’s so much easier to eat properly. You’re naturally attracted to the foods you should be eating.

AK: Seems like flavor is turning out to be the route to solving the problem of obesity in some way. And this is one of the problems. By the time we’ve got enough scientific data to prove we’re using a technology in a bad way, we’ve got a pattern of pernicious use really deeply embedded in our society, and it’s really hard to root it out at that point.

MS: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s a great point. I’m certainly not against any kind of technology, but we never look at the knock-on effects of things, we just look at things very superficially in the moment, without asking, “Well, what’s going to be the effect of this?”

The very first Doritos were just salted tortilla chips. And the complaint about them was that they sounded Mexican but didn’t taste Mexican. So Frito-Lay added taco flavor. And it was the flavorings that turned a snack nobody wanted to eat into a snack people literally couldn’t stop eating. The guy who invented Doritos is a guy named Arch West. I don’t think he was an evil person, he was doing his job. When we tinker with things like flavor technology, we tend not to ask the bigger questions, which is, “Well, what’s this going to do to the health of the country in 20 or 30 years?” And that’s how we have to start looking at things.

AK: If people want to try some of Harry’s tomatoes, or some of these heirloom chickens that you talk about in the book, which sound fantastically delicious, how can they get hold of them?

MS: So heirloom chickens are tricky. You’re not going to find them at the supermarket, generally speaking. See if there’s anyone doing anything in your area. Farmers’ markets are a good place to go. But you gotta ask questions. Ask the farmer the breed and ask their age of slaughter. Look for anything older than ten weeks old, and definitely look for chickens that have been pastured, which is to say, they live out on green grass, ’cause then they’re eating the grass, they’re eating bugs, they’re getting other things in their diet other than chicken feed, and that’s where the flavor comes from.

As far as Harry’s tomatoes go, in fact, for a ten-dollar donation to the University of Florida, he’ll send you a packet of seeds, and you can grow them yourself. It’s fun to grow your own tomatoes and it’s a great way to get in touch with real tomato flavor.

AK: OK great. It’s been great talking to you.

MS: You’ve asked some great questions, so this has been a lot of fun.