Digging Deeper: Seven Questions with Mark Schatzker

The flavor of our food corresponds to the nutrients we want to cultivate in our soils—and vice-versa. Flavor is also the foundation of a lasting relationship between growers and their markets. Many farmers, like ours at Stone Barns Center, consider flavor when evaluating crops for seed trials, on-farm plant breeding and the overall success of a diversified, resilient farming operation. But flavor in industrial-scale agriculture has been traded in favor of increased yield, while the artificial flavor in processed foods has been turned up to the max, and without any nutritional benefit. While investigating these trends, journalist Mark Schatzker became an expert on the subject of flavor and nutrition, and he has a lot to say about it, most notably in his book, The Dorito Effect.  

In June 2016, Schatzker was our guest at Stone Barns Center as part of our lecture series, The Prescription. We spoke with Schatzker about the how we, as a society, must shift toward a food culture that values nutritious, delicious and well-grown food. Edited excerpts follow.

SBC: What is the “Dorito Effect”? 

Schatzker: The Dorito Effect, very simply, is what happens when whole foods become bland and processed foods become engineered for maximum deliciousness. That, unfortunately, is the food environment so many of us find ourselves in today. Thanks to high-yield agriculture and a market that values low prices above all else, we have literally bleached the food we grow on farms — strawberries, tomatoes, chicken — of their flavor, as well as their vitamins and minerals. No matter how much we are implored to eat whole foods, we don’t, or we smother our vegetables in ranch dressing and our fruit in sugar or whipped cream, because these foods taste evermore like cardboard. 

Simultaneously, thanks to advances in flavor technology, we are now producing the very flavor compounds we are losing at the farm in flavor factories and adding them to all sorts of processed food. Flavor, very simply, has migrated from the produce section and meat counter to the packaged food and bottled drink aisles. We don’t just add flavorings to potato chips and soft drinks. We add flavorings to pasta sauces, frozen pizzas, soy milk, salad dressings, yogurt.... These engineered foods are designed for maximum consumption. The flavors are intense and often addictive. So much of the food we now buy chemically incentivizes humans to eat.

On the one hand, so many of us know that food doesn’t taste the way it used to. But what is so interesting about the food debate is that we never talk about flavor. For decades, we have been locked in often-heated debates about fat, protein, carbs and so forth, but we never talk about the way food tastes. And the way food tastes, I argue, can tell us so much about where food went wrong.

SBC: What part does soil play in flavor and nutrition?

Schatzker: Genetics is one piece of the flavor-nutrition pie. But the environment plays a huge role in the way genetics are expressed. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, soil plays an enormous role. You can have the finest heirloom tomato seeds there are, but if you plant them in sand and apply lots of fertilizer, that tomato will not realize its flavor potential. 

SBC: What role can farmers play in shifting our food culture back to valuing whole and nutrient-rich foods?

Schatzker: Farms are where food comes from, so I see farmers playing an indispensable role. And I think this is very good news for farmers. In a commodity market, where food is sold by the pound, farmers are incentivized to maximize yield and drive down cost as much as possible. Margins are small. Big, very simply, wins. But if the market actually places a value on quality — if consumers are willing to pay a little more for strawberries that taste like strawberries or chickens raised on pasture — then the farmers who produce these products will be rewarded for their efforts.   

SBC: What advice would you give parents as they try to navigate grocery stores and marketing aimed at kids?

Schatzker: I’d say two things. First, read the ingredients. If you see the words “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor,” then you know that product — whether it’s a soft drink or an organic yogurt — has been engineered for maximum palatability. The second thing I’d say is, be patient. Kids are learning to eat. If you want them to eat fruits and vegetables, give them a variety of options. A toddler might not like broccoli, but he might like carrots or red pepper. 

SBC: Should government be involved in ensuring that our food is healthful and nutritious? How so?

Schatzker: Nutrition is one of the most important issues of our time. Obesity is the leading cause of preventable morbidity, and the second-leading cause of preventable death. The question, of course, is what should the government do? Tax sugar? Ban junk food? One thing I would like to see is a focus on food in schools. Cooking is like getting dressed or brushing your teeth — a basic life skill everyone needs to know. It’s also a skill that brings lasting satisfaction and joy over the course of a person's life. 

SBC: What is the one thing in the food system you want to see change in the next five years?

Schatzker: I’d like to see more people care about flavor and cease our absurd battles over macronutrients like fat or carbs. We need to find the joy in real food. Part of that means getting real food to taste delicious again. But that also means we need to stop pretending we are expert nutritionists and start enjoying food the way nature intended.

SBC: What is your most memorable flavor experience? 

Schatzker: I have so many memorable flavor experiences, but one that stands out is a trip I took to California a few years ago while researching The Dorito Effect. I visited an organic farm near Sebastopol called Shelton’s Market Garden, and their strawberries absolutely blew my mind. I put a flat of them in the back seat of my rental car. And when I would come to a stop, the aroma would actually flood into the front seat, like a wave of sweetness.