Five stars for the outstanding information and research, though I’m questioning now whether I should have deducted a star for the pervasive and very off-putting fat-shaming. Read in November 2017.
I brought this book home after reading the blurb on the back and realizing that this must be, finally, the thing that would explain my food cravings. I often say that, while I do love sweets, I’m more of a savory person. And that’s true, but not quite accurate, because the word “savory” makes me think more of meat and potatoes—actual food—when really what I’m always looking for is flavor. Flaming hot Cheetos, baked cheddar and sour cream potato chips, and yes, Doritos—particularly spicy nacho. This is the garbage I can’t stop eating.
In this book I learned about the origin of the Dorito, and the fact that when Arch West first suggested the concept of a taco-flavored chip to his colleagues at Frito-Lay, they laughed at him for “not knowing the difference between a ‘thing’ and a ‘flavor’.” I then went on to learn that it’s not just Doritos which have destroyed that distinction; as a general rule, even “real” food now has to be flavored to taste like itself. This is how the food industry works (referring here to the American food industry, but since part of the problem is the globalization of agriculture—like with tomatoes, which have had all the flavor and nutrition bred out of them in exchange for tougher skins and slower ripening after picking, to make them last through a lengthy shipping process—I have no idea how much of it might be relevant elsewhere in the world. I know essentially nothing about global food markets.)
Since the late 1940s, we have been slowly leeching flavor out of the food we grow. Those perfectly round, red tomatoes that grace our supermarket aisles today are mostly water, and the big breasted chickens on our dinner plates grow three times faster than they used to, leaving them dry and tasteless. Simultaneously, we have taken great leaps forward in technology, allowing us to produce in the lab the very flavors that are being lost on the farm. Thanks to this largely invisible epidemic, seemingly healthy food is becoming more like junk food: highly craveable but nutritionally empty. We have unknowingly interfered with an ancient chemical language—flavor—that evolved to guide our nutrition, not destroy it.
When I went to mark the book as finished on Goodreads, I couldn’t decide what to write for the one- or two-sentence review I usually attempt to leave up front. This is what I ended up with: “The first several words I want to type are all profanity. I’m so sick of finding out all the ways we’re being undermined by people and industries who care about nothing but profit.” And that’s the point of this book: that long before we get to the question of people’s specific eating choices, we’re all being undermined in invisible ways, almost regardless of what we’re eating. Even if you buy nothing but produce from your grocery store, you’re not getting what you think you’re getting—the food is much less nutritious, much less flavorful, and consequently much less satisfying than the same food was sixty years ago.
This book was written in 2014, and part of me thinks Schatzker may be less insensitive if he were writing it now, though I may also just be projecting my own personal journey here. In any case, the way he talks about obesity is a problem. It helps that most of it happens toward the beginning, so once you get past it, you’re safe for most of the book (though it makes an upsetting appearance again toward the end).
To simply say there’s more junk food now than there used to be is to miss the breadth of the way food has been altered. Yes, part of the problem is junk food. There’s more of it, and it’s more alluring than ever. But non-junk food is a bigger problem. It isn’t as flavorful as it used to be, which has the inverse effect of making junk food yet more enticing. Even worse, we’re turning real food into junk food. Thanks to its off-putting insipidness, we coat it in calories, drench it in dressing, and dust it in synthetic flavor. The more bland it becomes, the harder we try to make it seem real.
Normally I quote a lot from books I review, but this book needs to be read. There is a lot of science in it that lays important groundwork for understanding just how much this all matters, and Schatzker does a much better job explaining it than I would be able to do. I was surprised more than once, having gotten caught up in what seemed to be an entirely new and unrelated topic, by the very clear connection that emerged, and the way it explained yet another aspect of Just What the Fuck is Wrong with Our Food. Unless we have the option of buying straight from a local farmer (or else moving to a country that values food for any reason other than pure profit), I think that is a question we’re going to be asking for a long time.