29 Jul 2009 8:00 am   //   Filed under: Food & drink

Better eating through chemistry

At home in Maryland last weekend, we were snacking on some popcorn chicken from the prepared-foods section of the grocery store. Mmm, those little fried nuggets were tasty! They had that savory fast-food flavor you can’t replicate in your own kitchen.

The secret? One of the ingredients on the label was “chicken flavor.” Chicken-flavored chicken! Genius!

If you’ve read Fast Food Nation, you may remember the description of the New Jersey factory where chemists create the artificial flavorings that are added to fast food. It’s why drive-through burgers taste the way they do: artificial beef flavoring. This seems like cheating—like using Auto-Tune to correct bad singing, or Photoshop to fix a bad photograph. But think about it. If you ran McDonald’s, wouldn’t you employ every tool at your disposal to make your hamburgers taste good?

I can’t deny that I enjoy artificially flavored foods. They’re engineered for us to enjoy; I’d have to try to dislike them. And while pouring chemicals into my body seems like an iffy idea, artificial flavors are surely no worse for me than alcohol, and I’m not about to encourage a health crusade against beer.

Something still troubles me, though. It’s not the chemicals. It’s that maybe food tastes the way it does for a reason. If the chicken we eat tastes just like chicken, we’re more likely to eat the right portion of it. If it tastes like super-chicken, we gorge ourselves. We can’t help it. The food plays tricks with our heads.