In our last issue, we saw how big food corporations developed flavorings as a response to the fact that factory-farmed food had lost its taste. And besides making bland food tasty, the new flavoring technology suddenly opened up new vistas for manipulating customers.
Flavor makes food enjoyable to eat. But added flavorings, together with other food components, acts on our emotions and provokes cravings for processed foods in a similar way to an addict’s cravings for drugs. Addiction – compulsive eating behavior — leads to over-consumption and obesity, which is now a leading cause of cancer.
But the story of flavorings does not end there. As flavor was bred out of the food, so was nutritional quality. Flavor and nutrition go hand in hand. In real food, flavor is “an outward sign of inward grace.” It’s a signal that valuable nutrients are present.
That’s why we respond so strongly to flavor. We naturally crave things that are good for us.
What happens when the flavors aren’t “real”? Keep reading. . .
Processed foods break the connection between flavor and good nutrition, hampering normal biological signaling. With artificial flavors, the taste tells our brains we’re getting precious nutrition, but in fact we’re getting. . .nothing.
The dilution effect
A study published in the British Food Journal in 1997 found marked reductions in the mineral content of 20 fruits and 20 vegetables grown in the 1980s compared to the 1930s. For example, the copper content of vegetables was down 81%, magnesium 35%, calcium 19% and the iron content of fruit by 32%.
In 2004, Donald Davis and colleagues from the renowned Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas compared 39 vegetables and three fruits based on data published in 1950 and 1999, and using more sophisticated methods than the 1997 British study I just summarized.
Over almost half a century, the overall trend for most nutrients, though not all, was clearly down. For example, vitamin C was down by 15% and vitamin A by 20%.
Fertilization, spraying, irrigation and selective breeding all create what is called “the dilution effect,” increasing the amount of water and carbohydrate in food while diminishing protein, vitamins and minerals.
The extra water, the genetic changes that took out flavor genes, the practice of extending shelf life by picking produce before it’s ripe — and other insults — diminished both flavor and nutritional quality.
While chicken is the best example of an animal food that has lost its flavor, tomatoes are the equivalent when it comes to fruit. As flavor diminished, so did nutrition.
The Texas team found losses of 54% for calcium. Declines were 25% for iron, 43% for vitamin A and 17% for vitamin C.
But what’s the connection between the nutritional deficiencies of modern foods and the soaring rates of obesity? To answer that we first need to take a closer look at the purpose of smell and taste.
We can smell with our mouths closed
In his book The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker states that much of what we think of as flavor is actually aroma.
He discusses the nasal cavity with its ten million smell receptors and its ability to distinguish more than a trillion aromas. We are even able to smell foods in our mouths through “retronasal olfaction.”
In this process, volatile aromatic compounds released by chewing enter the nose by way of a hole at the back of the throat. The result is that we actually have the ability to smell what we’re eating.
“Our smell apparatus appears to be designed for maximal food appreciation,” he writes.
When presented with food, the nose, together with taste receptors on the tongue, roof of the mouth and back of the throat combine to stimulate the brain more than any other activity.
Our nasal and oral cavities are designed this way because they have an important role to play. Both aroma and flavor provide us with information about what our bodies need to be healthy.
Flavor is a chemical language
Scientists have identified 45,000 secondary compounds in plants (flavonoids, anthocyanidins, phenolics, terpenoids, alkaloids, etc.). There may be hundreds of thousands more. Many of these are toxic. Plants produce them to ward off (or attract) insects and kill bacteria. Animals learn strategies – flavor preferences – about what plants are good for them and what to avoid.
Sick animals will seek out plants that are not a normal part of their diet to fight parasites and fungal infections, improve immunity and get well.
Likewise, if animals are short on minerals they will be attracted to foods they wouldn’t usually eat to make up the deficiencies. Animals have nutritional wisdom which they’ve learned by trial and error. They become attracted to what they need to eat. It’s called post-ingestive feedback.
They learn to seek out flavors that provide them with the particular nutrients or chemical compounds they need. Flavors act as chemical tags that enable animals to identify and remember what they’ve eaten. They are guided in their search by how they feel when they eat a particular food.
Both animals and humans communicate with their environment through chemical triggers that bind to receptors and produce responses.
Human nutritional wisdom
Professor Fred Provenza, an evolutional biologist at Utah State University, puts it this way: “Every organ and every cell has receptors similar to what’s in your nose and on your tongue. It’s all part of a feedback system.”
Although humans are born with this nutritional wisdom, it seems like we’ve lost it – but not entirely.
In an incredible experiment started in 1926, Chicago pediatrician Clara Davis wondered what babies transitioning from breast milk would choose to eat if the decision was left entirely up to them from a selection of 34 natural foods.
Surprisingly, the infants chose balanced diets, with their preferences changing according to growth spurts, activity levels and bouts of illness. After six years the babies in the study group were deemed by another pediatrician to be, both physically and mentally, the finest he had ever seen at that age.
In adults, you’ll usually see such wisdom only in extreme circumstances. In the eighteenth century, sailors with scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, developed an acute desire to eat fruits and vegetables. Pregnant women may crave unusual foods like dirt, clay and laundry starch. Scientists speculate that these odd choices contain missing nutrients the fetus needs.
Keeping portion size down
Maybe we can all recapture such nutritional wisdom even as healthy adults if we choose foods in their natural state.
Mr. Schatzker’s found his personal experience confirms this theory. Observing his own behavior, he found he would continue eating junk food with added flavors even though he didn’t feel good afterwards, whereas a tasty heirloom chicken provided complete satisfaction from only a small portion. The same was true with fresh ripe fruit and vegetables.
“Real” foods – those rich in flavor and teeming with nutrients – satisfy our needs and we don’t feel the need to eat more. Processed, nutrient-poor foods are amped up with fake flavors that tell us there’s nutrition within – but there isn’t. We keep eating because our brains tell us “there’s got to be something worthwhile in here somewhere.”
And we get fat.
According to Fred Provenza, “eating too much is an inability to satiate.” Food that meets our needs at multiple levels provides completeness and satisfaction that is quite different from stuffing ourselves with junk food.
In nature, flavor and nutrition are intimately connected. Natural flavors take you to vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and healthy fats. They also take you to secondary compounds in both plants and animals. And in general, the more secondary compounds foods contain, the more flavorful they will be. This applies to blueberries, mangoes, tomatoes, grapes, strawberries, carrots, and much else.
Odd finding: good food is toxic
There may be many toxins in the plants we eat, but in small doses they have multiple health benefits. In small doses or over short periods they often act as medicines. Many of these “toxins” provide antioxidants and make foods more nutritious. Often, these plant chemicals evolved to help the plant fight insects, fungi or other microbes.
We are able to keep the dose small because we get feedback when we’ve eaten enough. As Fred Provenza explains in his book, smell and taste receptors exist throughout the digestive tract, not just in the nose and mouth. We possess sensors for plant compounds as well as for fat, protein, bacteria and hormones.
Bitter compounds in fruits like broccoli, blueberries and grapes release hormones that trigger receptors in the gut which say – “you’ve reached your limit.”
In large enough doses we would get sick from these plant toxins, but thanks to feedback, we feel we’ve had enough before a toxic level is reached. Such is the intelligence within our digestive system, providing biological post-ingestive signals and responses.
Some secondary compounds are also “antifeedants” – they lower appetite. This has been demonstrated in both animals and humans. For instance, chili peppers have been shown to reduce appetite, and raisins increase gut hormones that cause you to feel full.
You are what you like
Humans have been blessed with a wonder apparatus – nose and mouth – that enable us to appreciate the foods nature has provided us with. Aromas and flavor guide us to food that is highly nutritious, and through learned preferences we understand what’s good for us. We connect with nature. We are born with the wisdom to know what’s best to eat.
Nations renowned for good food, like Italy, France and Japan, are not hotbeds of obesity, just the reverse.
Only ten percent of Italians are obese compared to 38% of Americans. They eat a lot of nutrient-dense food that tastes delicious without added flavor chemicals (they also don’t feel the need, unlike the US, to enrich flour or rice).
Such food, by meeting nutritional requirements, and through post-ingestive feedback, allows us to limit our intake and yet feel full and satisfied at the same time.
The same cannot be said for synthetic flavors added to food that has undergone processing and dilution. This breaks the connection between flavor and nutrition.
Our internal communication is disrupted. “Fake food” short-circuits nature’s complex regulatory systems, causes confusion and chaos, and disarms the body’s attempts to seek out the nutrition it needs.
Processed food jazzed up with flavorings makes the bland attractive without the multiple benefits our grandparents used to get from genetically unmodified foods, and without the mechanisms that signal us to stop eating. And make no mistake, plant breeding started long before modern gene technology came along.
These days, instead of learning preferences for nutritious food, we learn preferences for flavors paired with tons of calories. We reap two results: a yearning for pizza, ice cream, fries, chips, Doritos — and eventually, obesity and an increased risk of cancer and many other illnesses.
Mark Schatzker recommends we seek out real flavor, enjoy meat from pastured animals, and only eat foods we find deeply satisfying.
Good food is often an acquired taste, so try something new a number of times before you decide if it’s for you. You may have to visit farmer’s markets, specialist outlets and pay more for flavorful, nutrient-dense food, but it’s definitely worth it.
One last thing: In fairness to the chemical industry, food additives are not the only problem. I should add that some natural substances are addictive and are added to processed food in huge quantities. I’m thinking mainly of sugar. But I’ve written often in the past about how sugar is “the cocaine of foods” – so I hope readers already know this.