In his book “The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor,” award-winning journalist and author, Mark Schatzker, investigates the introduction of flavor into the industrialized food supply. An investigative journalist by profession, Schatzker’s curiosity about flavor led him to eventually write two books addressing this issue. The first, “Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef” was, as the title implies, about steak. 

“I got deep into the science of flavor [and] the science of how we perceive flavor. But I also [asked a] question that we rarely ask, which is ‘Why does food have flavor?’ We think it’s all very simple. We take for granted of the fact that apples taste like apples and steak tastes like steak. But then when you start to get inside it, it becomes very interesting,” he says.

“I would visit a ranch and there would be a field of pregnant cows and a field of steers. The rancher would say, ‘Oh, the pregnant cows are in a field of clover because they need a lot of protein [when] they’re pregnant.’ Cows don’t even know what protein is, so how does a cow know what to eat? 

The answer is flavor feedback. They seek out the flavors that bring their bodies what they need. It’s something we are certainly very alienated from … We tend to think there’s an inverse relationship between health and deliciousness. I set out to do that steak book thinking, ‘It might be that the best steak I find is awful for the cow [and] horrible for the planet; it’s like a heart attack on a plate.’ 

What I found, oddly, was that the most delicious steak was the best for the planet, nicest for the cow and the best for me. I thought, ‘This is not what I expected. This is not what we were taught to expect. Is there something going on here?’ … [I]n nature … delicious flavors guide animals to the foods they need. So, I asked what is a simple question with a very complex answer, which is, ‘Does it work that way for humans?'”

The History of the Dorito 

The story of the Dorito starts with the late Archibald Clark West, a marketing executive who, in the 1950s, worked on the Jell-O Pudding account. In 1960, the Frito company offered him the position of vice president of sales and marketing. (Shortly thereafter, Frito merged with the Lay’s chip company to become Frito-Lay.) A chance stop at a Mexican food shack on the way back home from a visit with Lawrence Frank, the inventor of Lawry’s seasoned salt, exposed West to the tortilla chip. 

“He thought, ‘This is going to be the next big thing for Frito-Lay’ … He presented his idea to his fellow executives. They just sort of looked at him like he’s a little funny because they thought, ‘Why would we want to make tortilla chips when we already make Fritos, which are kind of the same thing? … But West was so confident in his idea that he actually funneled discretionary funds to an off-site facility to develop this concept. 

He gave them a name, which, in a very bastardized Spanish, means ‘little pieces of gold.’ He brought it back to his fellow executives. He passed out samples of tortilla chips and said, ‘Gentlemen, I give you Doritos.’ I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘OK. This is when the world changed. This is where junk food was forever junkier and more addictive.’

But in fact, that’s not what happened, because the Doritos that first went to market … were just … salted tortilla chips. People in the Southwest … where there was a Hispanic cultural influence, knew that you could dip them in salsa and so forth. But the rest of the country didn’t really get it. The main complaint was that the snack sounds Mexican, [but] it doesn’t taste Mexican.” 

The Dorito Effect

Undeterred, West had another epiphany: “Let’s make them taste like taco.” Up until that time, foods had their own intrinsic flavors and that was that. If you wanted the taste of raspberry or pineapple, you had to use real raspberries and real pineapple. But some speculate that West’s friendship with Lawrence Frank (the inventor of Lawry’s seasoned salt) gave him the insight that you could alter flavors through the use of chemicals. 

“You could make whatever you wanted taste like whatever you wanted it to taste like. You could literally buy flavored chemicals and put a dusting on a triangular piece of fried cornmeal and, voila! It wouldn’t taste exactly like a taco, but it would have that depth, that tang, that zest. Frito-Lay then brought out taco-flavored Doritos, and that changed everything.

Let’s think about that for a second. We’re talking about a high-fat, high-carb, high-salt snack that America basically wasn’t interested in. With the addition of flavored chemicals, it turned into a snack people could not stop eating. Let’s also think about this: Prior to taco-flavored Doritos, when people ate tortilla chips, they would dip them in things that are good for you, things like a bean dip or salsa made with tomatoes, made with hot peppers. 

Now you didn’t need that. Now you could just dust on the flavorings and they tasted good on their own. This, to me, is a very important moment in the history of our food culture, because it’s when we mastered flavor. Up until that point, roughly speaking, flavor had been the domain of Mother Nature. Now, it was up to, literally, the folks who worked in marketing.”