By most measures, modern food production mirrors the success of modern technology. Consider the growth in corn yields over the past century - In 1932, farmers grew an average 27 bushels of corn per acre; today, yields have increased more than tenfold to over 328 bushels per acre. This is a story that has been repeated across countless crops from tomatoes to strawberries and much more. Even livestock has seen similar growth; the average commercial chicken has more than quadrupled in size since the 1950s.
However, as with most other facets of life (from attention to employment), technological productivity carries unintended consequences. Artificially breeding food for size, speed of growth, pest resistance, shelf life and appearance has come with unanticipated but costly consequences; namely, the loss of flavour and nutrition. This is the subject of Mark Schatzker’s new book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor and Schatzker was on hand at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on October 26th to discuss his book and speak broadly on how seventy years of industrial farming has changed our relationship with food and health.
While aesthetically pleasing and highly productive, modern crops bred for artificially selected traits are equally notable for their blandness and lack of flavour. This is because flavour is intimately tied to the nutritional content of food and, as Schatzker eagerly conveyed, the nutritional content of food has been in rapid decline for the better part of the past century. As a result, people are now eating more calorie-rich food than ever to meet regular nutritional needs.
Of course, this is only half the story. If modern food were entirely bland and flavourless then why would we eat it, let alone in morbidly unhealthy quantities? The answer is what Schatzker refers to as the Dorito Effect. Doritos, like all other delicious but nutritionally-vacant foods, owes its popularity to the creation of synthetic flavour technology which makes blandness attractive. Highly engineered flavours, whether ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’, produce flavours to mask the blandness of the actual product.
Displaying enthusiastic familiarity with his subject, Schatzker challenged his audience to consider the consequences that hijacking the biological bias for flavour through the twin forces of flavour dilution and fake flavour has had on our society. Obesity is now our biggest health problem. Today in Canada more than 70 percent of people are either overweight or obese. Our food has become a slow acting poison.
Public health responses to the issue have traditionally focused on specific nutrients in our food as the culprit of our crisis. We put carbohydrates, or fats, or gluten, et cetera on trial before public kangaroo courts in the media. This only considers the effect of food only once it has been eaten. Instead, Schatzker asks us to consider the entire range of decisions made to support our eating habits and behaviour. To consider a relationship with food that begins with what is produced and how in order that we may better understand our health crisis.