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An expert weighs in on the Dorito case

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Driving the company car along East Ohio Street the other day wondering if Mars might one day host a Super Bowl, and it hits me: This neighborhood provides a host of ready means by which I could get myself killed.

Drugs, alcohol, the flinty tension of inevitable gunplay, failure to maintain a safe following distance relative to the vehicle in front of me; it was all there. Of course, danger is my middle name -- I'm driving the company car, ain't I? -- so why not push the envelope, whatever that means.

Let's go right to the Doritos.

Oh, maybe you missed this story on New Year's Day, but it made CNN.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court ruled against one Charles R. Grady, who claims that Doritos are of such a shape and rigidity that they damaged his throat. Grady had been trying to introduce as evidence a study done by a former Pitt chemistry professor that purportedly calculated the exact chewing force-to-saliva ratio necessary for safely swallowing the chips.

A lower court discredited the study, but the state Superior Court ruled the study valid. That's when Frito-Lay's lawyers got involved, successfully appealing to the state's highest court to keep the study out of evidence.

The evidence that 99 bajillion Doritos have been consumed by your humble correspondent alone without any throat damage was not part of the discovery phrase, but should have been.

I was thinking about this, approximately, when I floated into the serious snacks aisle at the North Side Giant Beagle to get re-acquainted with the array of available Doritos flavors and with the living history of marketing that the chips always provide.

There were the original taco-flavored Doritos, which, when introduced some 35 years ago, were little short of a revelation to chipaholics. A crunchy taste explosion, they were richly satisfying to the consumer but the source of a sickening noxious gas to the person sitting across from the consumer, especially my brother, whose stomach was politely described as "iffy."

Very soon, however, Doritos became available in nacho cheese flavor (now Nacho Cheesier!), which were considerably less fragrant, even to the extent that my brother tried some and said rather gleefully, "Wow. My compliments to the chemist!" Before long, both of us had integrated them into our five basic food groups: Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos and pizza.

This week, Doritos are on shelves in seven versions, cool ranch (Cool Ranchier!), nacho cheese (Nacho Cheesier!), guacamole, jalapeno cheddar, taco, salsa and four cheese. If I know anything about anything, the four cheese will eventually give way to the five-cheese Dorito, because in a culture where the number of blades on a single razor now equals the number of cheeses chemically affixed to a Dorito, something's gotta give. For my money, although nacho cheese Doritos are the brand flagship, if you will, the salsa flavor carries the mother lode of the product's eventful history.

It was a commercial for salsa Doritos in which Tom Waits noticed that the singer sounded a little too gravelly and familiar and successfully sued for a cool ranch $2.4 million. Salsa Doritos were also the chip chomped by Yasmine Bleeth in a spicy Super Bowl commercial the likes of which have rarely been duplicated, at least among the men-are-pigs demographic.

Texas-based Frito-Lay began changing the process for making Doritos to eliminate trans-fatty acids (now the only partially hydrogenated substances are cottonseed and soybean oil -- mmm-mmm!) and complied with new FDA labeling regulations four years before they become mandatory in 2006. But the company still can't avoid the odd lawsuit over the snack's general munchability.

The traditional two-inch triangles, whether as a result of specific complaints or just the never-ending American demand for "choices," are now augmented by mini-Doritos (half-inchers approximately) that come in a can that looks suspiciously like Pringles, and by the popular 3D Doritos, which look like tiny spacecraft and have a lighter, spacier taste.

As a so-called expert in Dorito consumption, I recommend you stick to the two-inchers, all things being equal, although the 3D size is more comfortable for driving. Having never tried the minis, I purchased a can of cool ranchiers for the drive back to the office.

In heavy traffic approaching Fort Pitt Boulevard, it took all my concentration to pound those mini Doritos right from the can into my gullet because I was so distracted by the giant electronic displays on the side of the new CAPA school.

So yeah, it's dangerous out there, but the Doritos are innocent.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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