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Many nutrition experts agree that fast food and processed snacks greatly contribute to the obesity epidemic. However, researchers took this idea a step deeper. What is it about these manufactured foods that cause weight gain? Author Mark Schatzker in his 2016 book “The Dorito Effect” says the answer is simple. It all comes down to flavor. Food companies are invested in making their products as tasty and addictive as possible. The more people eat, the more money they make. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetables growers are focused on quantity over quality. So healthy foods taste bland compared to what comes from a bag or a box, explains Schatzker, and that’s what’s fueling the obesity epidemic.
What’s the Dorito Effect?
“We keep arguing about carbs and fat and sugar,” Schatzker said in an interview with CBS. “All these things existed and people ate them 50 years ago when Americans were a whole lot trimmer. The thing that’s really changed is the flavor.” During his research, he found that foods have increased in salt, sugar, fat, and carbohydrates in the past 50 years because they make people want to eat more. He uses Doritos as his prime example.
Doritos began as a simple salted tortilla chip but weren’t selling well. That is until the manufacturers thought of the novel concept to flavor the chips like tacos. Essentially taking food and giving it the flavor of another food. Then they introduced the nacho cheese flavor, and so on. Only then did the chips boom in popularity.
Meanwhile, natural whole foods become mass-produced at a rapid scale with little thought toward taste. This makes all of these additional flavors necessary, hence the Dorito Effect. “The problem is chicken has no flavor,” he said. “If you look at recipes for fried chicken from 100 years ago, it was just salt and pepper. If you try that now, it’s like eating a roll of wet toilet paper. It’s not going to work. So what we’re forced to do is blitz everything we eat in flavoring to make it taste good. But we’re misdirecting our palates. We’re luring ourselves away from the food we should be eating, and we’ve made the food we shouldn’t be eating hyper-desirable.” 
How Processed Flavor Causes Obesity
There have been many studies on the topic of added flavors and their contribution to weight gain and obesity. One study from 2022 found that added flavors can have two effects on consumers. One, they promote “hedonic eating” and override the body’s natural ability to control food intake. Plus, these flavors confuse the body’s ability to predict nutrition based on taste. The study recommends further research on the link between flavor intake and health. 
“We’ve gotten really good at stripping out and refining and processing sugars and fats into these really potent vehicles, and they’ve gotten cheaper to make,” says Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who studies food and addiction. “Then we combine them into totally novel food products that are so much more rewarding than anything our brains ever evolved to handle. That’s why so many of us can’t stop eating them.” 
Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D. wanted to debunk this theory that people are gaining weight because of food companies. Hall runs a research laboratory that studies the regulation of metabolism and body weight at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), so he devised a new study. Twenty paid volunteers moved into an NIH facility for one month. Half ate food made from whole ingredients with minimal processing like Greek yogurt and shrimp scampi with spaghetti. The other group ate processed food like Honey Nut Cheerios and Chef Boyardee ravioli. Hall and his colleagues worked to create these two diets that were nutritionally similar. The main difference was how processed the food was, or wasn’t. 
The volunteers ate as much as they wanted, but the group eating processed food tended to eat more and gained a pound a week compared to the other group. And when they switched to the natural diet, they lost the extra weight. Hall had inadvertently supported the theory. Food companies’ chemists are devising food flavors that lead to people gaining weight, and more research is needed to expand on this topic.
Eating and Enjoying
Schatzker describes two types of delicious food experiences. One is when you can’t stop eating, like the effect of bag of Doritos. You keep reaching for more because it tastes good in the moment but you end up feeling sick later. But the second experience comes with a piece of dark chocolate or a freshly-picked apple.
The goal isn’t to eat as much as possible to prolong the experience. Rather, these foods are best eaten slowly while savoring every nuance of flavor and are more satisfying overall. Schatzker recommends thinking about how sick you feel after the first kind of experience to help discourage you from pursuing that food again. Instead, you should focus on eating nature’s most delicious flavors.
“We’ve got to start thinking about cooking dinner the way an Italian chef does,” says Schatzker. “Get the ultimate tomato, the best tasting chicken. Cooking’s a lot more fun that way. It’s much more delicious, and it’s more satisfying.”
Keep Reading: 16 Facts Mind-Blowing Food Facts That Will Leave You Hungry For Morec
- “Food flavorings may be fueling obesity epidemic.” CBS News. Ashley Welch. May 4, 2015
- “Added flavors: potential contributors to body weight gain and obesity?” BMC Medicine. Nathalie Judith Neumann & Mathias Fasshauer. November 1, 2022
- “Americans Are Addicted to ‘Ultra-Processed’ Foods, and It’s Killing Us.” Newsweek. Adam Piore. December 8, 2021
- “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake.” NIH. Kevin D. Hall. July 2019