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What happens to food when fake flavour gets better?

Author of new book claims synthetic flavours feed consumer cravings

Much of the food we eat is based on a lie, says the author of "The Dorito Effect.''

Instead of flavour coming from nature, synthetic tastes are being created by scientists in labs to zip up blandness and encourage people to crave more, says Mark Schatzker.

"Very simply, all the food we grow keeps getting blander–tomatoes, cucumbers, chickens–and flavour technology has gotten incredibly powerful. So essentially the flavour used to be produced predominantly by Mother Nature and now it's produced by scientists,'' says Toronto-based Schatzker.

"We've lowered nutritional density. We've cranked up the calories. And we've made it taste good.''

The book's title, "The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavour'' (Simon & Schuster), came from Schatzker's research that showed the first Dorito was a salted tortilla chip that didn't sell well.

But when it was flavoured to simulate a taco it became a smash hit.

"If you think about the taco-flavoured Dorito–not that I want to beat up on Frito Lay–it tastes savoury. It tastes like something you'd associate with protein,'' says Schatzker, who recently addressed members of the hospitality industry at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto.

"They put MSG on it, which is the flavour of protein, umami, and then they put all these flavourings, like roast meat flavours and onion and all that. So a Dorito, especially I think to a kid, is as savoury and satisfying as a savoury protein meal, but what are you delivering? Carbs and fat. There's very little protein in snacks like that.

"In that sense you're really crossing wires. Think about that over a lifetime when you start to confuse your palate that way and really wire yourself for food like that. It takes you to a bad place.''

What's alarming is that so much food is being treated this way, says Schatzker, 41, whose first book in 2010 was "Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef.''

"People tend to think our real problem is junk food. But we're adding flavourings to soy milk, we're adding it to butter, we're adding it to pasta sauce, to frozen pizza. We're putting them everywhere and we're creating food that's more delicious than it deserves to be.''

But it's possible to re-educate the palate, Schatzker says, pointing to the booming Canadian craft beer market as an example.

"We've basically told the brewers: 'We want beer that actually tastes like something, not this kind of Perrier water that you keep hawking.' And they've done that.''

To prevent falling into "The Dorito Effect'' trap, Schatzker recommends eating real whole foods and avoiding artificial and natural flavours.

"There's nothing natural about natural flavours. When you see that in an ingredient panel you'll know that the flavour was contrived by someone with a PhD, not expressed by a plant or an animal.''

He also suggests avoiding artificial sweeteners like aspartame and stevia.

"I wouldn't go near any of them. There's some very good research that they cause what are known as metabolic derangements. They confuse your body about the meaning of sweet, and sweetness ceases to be a reliable indicator of calories,'' he says.

"I think what it also does is keeps your sweet tooth high.''

And buy better-quality meat and produce, Schatzker says.

"The more that we reward the producers for producing flavour, the more they'll do it.''

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