Have you ever noticed how in proximity, strong flavors tend to overpower subtle ones? The salt and spice addicts among us know very well how most food tastes flat and insipid without a punch of something piquant.
Our taste buds function much like any other sensory organ. Black Sabbath at sound level 11 after a while bludgeons your eardrums, so that the viola part in a Beethoven string quartet simply does not register. The sheer sensory overload of current 3-D action movies makes the real world seem wan and faded. Why should our taste buds be any different?
Of course, I am thinking of the effect of highly engineered industrial food so prevalent nowadays: junk food, fast food and even seemingly benign products like canned chicken broth or just about anything marketed as convenience food. These are all hyper-engineered to deliver megaflavor, so you get addicted and buy more. And, of course, eat more, without being truly satisfied.
These foods are the aesthetic equivalent of sound level 11, not only in added sugar, salt, fat, which our bodies instinctively crave, but MSG and especially industrial flavors and fragrances. Many of these pass for "natural" on labels under U.S. regulations simply because they are extracted from living organisms as opposed to artificial combinations of chemicals. They are all manufactured in a laboratory nonetheless. Moreover, the initial burst of flavor fades quickly so that you are goaded on to take another bite, and then another. This is the aesthetic equivalent of a cascade of crash cymbals firing in your mouth.
How will all these products affect the next generation raised predominantly on such engineered flavors? Leaving aside considerations of health, environmental sustainability or access to good, quality food for everyone, will the next generation even be able to taste and appreciate something as simple and unfettered as a stalk of asparagus or an unnuggetized mouthful of chicken? I seriously doubt anything we consider real food today will be even vaguely palatable to our progeny. Perhaps we have already missed that boat.
The only viable solution as far as I can tell is to buy whole ingredients, spend some time in the kitchen cooking them and retrain our taste buds to appreciate simple flavors again. This may be the only way we free ourselves from the gastronomic tyranny of corporate food, whose interest, we know, is only to make profit.
There is no doubt that their products taste good; they are designed to titillate our senses and drive us into eating more. Industrially processed food would have disappeared long ago if it didn't offer flavor, too much flavor, I argue.
All this came into perspective recently, as a brand new variant of SpaghettiOs was launched – somehow perversely including cheeseburgers.
Stop a second and ponder this. Not a few cut-up franks mixed with your flaccid O's of gummy pasta sodden in ketchup-like goop, but a cheeseburger-flavored bolus of some kind, floating there in the can.
I can't even imagine what, but no doubt laden with that same engineered artificial cheeseburger flavor sprayed onto chips and other products. Never mind the bizarre juxtaposition of two radically different foods; I'm all for fun. Simply pondering how they put this product together truly frightens me.
Take a food so simple and lovely you can make it at home quickly with a few ingredients, even from scratch – pasta. Then take what is among the most ingenious marvels of American cuisine. Cheeseburgers can be fabulous – real grilled beef, good cheddar, serious lacto-fermented pickles. Then ram the two together in a can.
I have no doubt it will sell well. Children will be intrigued. Adults may quake with nostalgia or be lured by the promise of novelty. But what effect will this have on our taste buds? Will we even be able to taste unprocessed food anymore?
We stand at a serious crossroad gastronomically. For every farmers market stall or serious butcher there are six new industrial products, sold with the promise of convenience, cramming the shelves of our grocery stores every day.
I have nothing against flavor – but when it dulls our ability to appreciate actual food, we really must stop and take notice.
Ken Albala is a professor of history at the University of the Pacific. He is an author and editor of 16 books and the author of the forthcoming book "Grow Food, Cook Food, Share Food" from Oregon State University Press.