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Our sense of taste takes up more space in our brain than any other sensory experience. And it’s not just so we can enjoy all the wonderful flavors in our food.
The amount of gray matter devoted to the sense of taste is a matter of survival.
Our ancestors used taste as a sign of the nutritional value of the food they ate. For them, tasting food was actually a chemical-sensing ability that guided them to the essential nutrients they needed for survival.
It should still work that way. We ought to be able to taste our way to the healthiest food available. Unfortunately, the modern world has interfered with this ability.
This interference can be traced back to the 1950s, when we discovered how to manipulate flavor. That discovery has led to an obesity rate of about 30%, and to more than 100 million adults with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
We have lost our ability to determine what’s good for us simply by tasting it.
We’ve come to associate “tastes good” with “must be bad for me,” the direct opposite of how our ancestors operated.
How did this happen? Who’s responsible, and how do we fight back?
It started with the Dorito
In his book, The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, journalist Mark Schatzker reveals how the flavor of so many of our foods became untrustworthy in terms of judging its nutritional value.
Archibald West was a marketing executive with Frito-Lay during the 1950s. His brainchild, the Dorito, was a salted tortilla chip inspired by a visit to a Mexican food shack.
About the same time, the first gas chromatograph became available. This technology made it possible to turn a piece of food into gas and separate out each distinct chemical. For the first time, food companies could figure out exactly which chemical produced which flavor.
Now, Archibald West could make his plain-Jane tortilla chips taste like tacos, or chicken, or anything he pleased.
This was a turning point in the history of flavor. Until then, flavor had been “the domain of Mother Nature,” says Mark Schatzker. “Now, it was up to, literally, the folks who worked in marketing.”
The secret manipulators of our taste buds
Today, chemically-produced flavors are in everything from ice cream to soups, drinks to crackers. And in terms of their safety, the fox is guarding the henhouse.
The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association is a self-policing entity with virtually complete control over which chemicals are deemed “safe” enough for us to consume.
Through a loophole in the FDA’s regulations, companies can determine their ingredients to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.
But manufacturers have come up against consumer objections to artificial ingredients. Their solution: “natural” flavorings.
When ‘natural’ is anything but natural
The term ‘natural’ flavorings often just means that they were produced through so-called ‘natural’ processes like fermentation or evaporation, rather than manufactured in a chemical laboratory. But there’s nothing wholesome or nutritious about them.
When a mother feeds her child yogurt or a granola bar that has the words ‘natural flavoring’ on the label, they probably don’t realize that there’s nothing that comes from berries in there. It’s all sugar and artificial flavors.
What real food tastes like
Mark Schatzker gives a great example of how we can start to become more deeply aware of our taste experience and begin to make better nutritional choices based on flavor.
“You never say, ‘Boy, in the summer of 1997, I had a sour cream and onion chip, and I will never forget it.’ These are never rich, pleasurable experiences. It’s like something is turned on and we can’t stop.”
In contrast, he asks us to consider a perfect tomato or piece of dark chocolate. “The point isn’t to stuff as much into your mouth as fast as you can. The point is to sit in a kind of deep contemplation of this incredible flavor experience.”
Foods to watch out for
Food companies spend a lot of time and money perfecting the flavors that will hook us.
Two examples of ‘natural’ flavorings are monosodium glutamate (MSG), and castoreum. Castoreum is used as ‘natural’ raspberry flavor and is extracted from the anal glands of beavers.
Some products with the most addictive flavorings go beyond chips and snacks:
- Barbecue sauce (‘natural smoke flavor’)
- Powdered drink mixes
- Canned soups
Artificial flavors are known to cause fatigue, seizures, depression, cancer and other symptoms.
Basically, you need to eat clean by detoxing your diet. A good rule to follow is this: If you don’t know what it is or where it came from, don’t eat it.
Summer is the perfect time to start moving in this direction. Here is a simple but delicious treat to start with.
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- Food flavor safety system a ‘black box’ — The Center for Public Integrity
- Why the FDA doesn’t really know what’s in your food — The Center for Public Integrity
- A matter of taste and survival for the human race — The Irish Times
- AVOID! Toxic “Natural Flavors” — Janes Healthy Kitchen
- The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor — Mark Schatzker
- The Dorito Effect — The Surprising Truth About Food and Flavor — Mercola.com
- Flavor your World — Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Assoc.