When I was a kid, I had this silly baton filled with clear water and sparkles. I loved to try holding it as straight as my five-year-old hands could manage and watch an inch-long air bubble make its way to the center like a level from the hardware store. One false move would send the bubble floating to one side or the other. But if I stood as still as could be—breath held for insurance—I could center the bubble in the middle of the baton with rainbow sparkles swirling around it on both sides.
As simple as it was, it was one of my first lessons in achieving equilibrium. Give and take in just the right balance makes everything to work out for the best. Too bad the mainstream food industry hasn’t learned anything about balance, and keeps trying to tip the scale toward an unhealthy diet.
The Dorito Effect
One recent submission to our Bookshelf section conjured up these thoughts about balance in our food supply: The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor (Simon & Schuster, 2015), by Mark Schatzker.
The author makes this interesting point: the food that’s good for us—lean proteins, fresh fruit, veggies and the like—is getting blander. Meat has become tasteless, as animals like chickens are bred for their ability to grow quickly and look—but not necessarily taste—just right. Schatzker compares chicken recipes from the turn of the century to those of today. Back then, people used less salt and seasoning because the basic ingredients just tasted better on their own.
Likewise, produce is a victim of deteriorating soil quality and nutrient composition, but that’s not the only reason why conventional crops just don’t taste great. In an effort to maximize profits and consumer appeal, conventional farmers are encouraged to grow bigger or to harvest earlier so that produce will ripen along its journey to the store. The end result is whole foods that need to be dressed up—often in unhealthy ways—to be appetizing. The dust jacket asks, “Have you ever wondered why those perfect red tomatoes from the supermarket taste like tap water?” Well, that’s why.
We crave flavor. It’s engraved in our DNA, says Schatzker, and junk food makers have figured this out and take advantage of it. Super clever advances in junk food technology have made unhealthy foods addictive and incredibly desirable. From carefully crafted artificial flavors to sugar, food technologies are actually interfering with the way we feel about flavors, skewing our affinity for fake flavors and making us fatter.
So, as Schatzker posits, conventional produce is getting blander while junk food is getting tastier and more desirable. The balance of nutrition and taste are out of whack, and the only way to reverse the trend is to insist that growers and food manufacturers make changes.
Two More Pieces of the Puzzle
While Schatzker’s argument makes so much sense, two aspects of his dissertation really bother me. For one, he’s critical of organic, with the view that “industrial organic” farms are growing just as inferior-tasting produce as conventional farms. I’m not sold on this idea; not only do I believe organic food from small and large farms alike truly tastes better than conventional, but there are so, so many reasons to support the organic industry beyond taste and nutrient content. For one, many of us buy organic to avoid chemicals and pesticides, and to reduce organic down to just one facet is too simplistic.
He also thinks supplements empower people to believe a low-nutrion, high-calorie diet is just fine. This argument displays a sore misunderstanding of the main reason for taking dietary supplements: to supplement the diet, not replace it. The way he frames supplements does more harm than good, in my opinion.
I think this book is a great conversation starter for re-evaluating our food choices, but I definitely think organic foods and dietary supplements have a huge role to play in finding equilibrium in our search for a tasty and healthy diet. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2015