Surprise: Flavor Drives Nutrition

Apr 14, 2015

Mark Schatzker, one of our featured speakers at the upcoming 2015 Grass Fed Exchange Conference, recently published an editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “How Flavor Drives Nutrition”. Mark is a well-known Food & Travel writer and author of the book Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. Mark has just authored a second book that will be released on May 5, 2015 titled, The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food & Flavor.

Mark states that “for nearly a half century, America has been on a witch hunt to find the ingredient that is making us fat. In the 1980s, the culprit was fat itself. Next it was carbs. Today, sugar is the enemy – unless you’re caught up in the war on gluten”.

Mark goes on to point out that none of our attempts at fighting obesity have worked as the percent of the American population characterized as Overweight and Obese has continue to rise. He surmises that the reason we are losing the “war on obesity” is because we are missing “a crucial piece of the food puzzle”. He points out that the diet gurus and government bureaucrats never seem to ask the simple question, “How does our food taste?”.

Mark points out that animals use the senses of taste and smell to identify nutrients crucial to life and that even insects use flavor chemicals to determine whether a potential food is good or is poison. Humans are very similar in that our flavor-sensing genes take up more DNA than any other function of the body. Dr. Fred Provenza, behavioral ecologist and professor emeritus at Utah State University, states that, “Flavor is the body’s way of identifying important nutrients and remembering what foods they come from”.

Mark offers up a unique scientific study that was conducted in1939 in which a group of toddlers had free reign to feed themselves. Every day they were offered an array of 34 “nutritionally diverse whole foods” that included items such as beef, bone jelly, carrots, chicken, grain, bananas, milk, water, etc. Each child had the choice of what to eat and how much to eat. Our first impression would be to state that the toddlers stuffed themselves every day on the foods they found to be the sweetest and avoided the other food items. However, the reverse was quite true – they tended to be drawn to the foods that best nourished them. During growth spurts, they gravitated towards more protein. During periods of high activity, they ate foods that were more dense in carbs and fat.

What is even more astonishing about this study is that when the toddlers were experiencing health challenges they responded by making very specific food choices. During the course of the study there was an outbreak of mononucleosis in the group of toddlers and they consumed more raw beef, carrots, and beets. A child with severe vitamin A deficiency even drank cod liver oil of his own will. I don’t know about you, but I am old enough to remember when cod liver oil was commonly used as a “cure all” for various ailments and commonly forced down children’s throats. I can tell you that I never willingly drank cod liver oil.

At the end of the study the doctors monitoring the health of the toddlers described them as “the finest group of specimens he had ever seen in their age group”. How were they able to do this? Toddlers have not learned about dietary nutrition. They don’t know about fats, carbs, and proteins. They had never seen the USDA Food Pyramid. They simply ate what their body craved and what their body craved tasted good to them.

Mark goes on to point out that a 2006 study that was published in the Journal Science found that the 20 most important flavor compounds found in tomatoes are synthesized from critical nutrients such as omega-3 fats and essential amino acids. The elements that make a tomato nutritious also make it delicious. The authors of the study suggest that “flavor compounds provide important information about the nutritional makeup of foods”.

So, based on the empirical evidence, Mark suggests that for more than 50 years the food we eat has been getting significantly blander. He offers up as evidence, the cardboard taste of tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, chicken, pork, and even beef. Yes, beef, the “sacred cow” of protein, has gradually gotten blander over the past several decades. Why? Might it be the lack of nutrient dense foods in their own finishing diet?

What is pertinent to this thread is that a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that modern tomatoes have only 50% of the calcium and vitamin A as did tomatoes produced in the 1950s. Mark states that we compound the “nutritional insult” by then drowning the bland food in some type of dressing, seasoning, or sauce.

According to Mark’s research, there are now global corporations that make billions annually from manufacturing synthetic or chemical flavorings to add back to food some semblance of taste or flavor. According to Euromonitor International, a London-based market research company, Americans now consume more than 600 million pounds of synthetic flavorings each year. At the current US population estimate of 320 million, that equals 1.875 pounds of synthetic flavoring for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. each year. So we are at a place where our food is so bland that it takes almost two pounds of chemical flavorings annually to add back the flavor that should be there in the first place. What is so concerning about this is not simply the fact that we are consuming such a large amount of synthetic flavorings each year per capita, but that we are consuming foods that are so lacking in nutrient density that we need the added flavorings. This has much farther reaching implications.

What is Mark’s take on all this? He suggests that the American consumer spend their money of the “good stuff” and not empty, flavor-added calories. By seeking out and purchasing foods with real flavor, the consumer will be voting with their pocketbook and then the free market will respond in kind.

As farmers and ranchers, most of us know how to produce foods with better flavor and greater nutrient density. We just have to realize a profit potential in order to transition to “better” food production. Since farming and ranching is a business and not a non-profit enterprise, the economic incentive needs to be there for more farmers and ranchers to produce nutrient dense foods that are packed with flavor. That economic incentive comes from the consumer, not the government, not the institutions, and not the NGOs. All of the latter can be important from a research funding standpoint, but they do not drive consumer purchase decisions.

To read Mark’s entire Wall Street Journal editorial, you can click on the link below:

- Mark Schatzker’s new book, “The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor,” will be published by Simon & Schuster on May 5.

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