In the 1960s, Frito-Lay marketing executive Arch West returned from a family vacation in California singing the praises of toasted tortillas he had sampled at a roadside stop. In 1972, his discovery morphed into Doritos, a plain, crispy tortilla chip that was sprinkled with powdered gold in the form of nacho cheese flavoring.
Doritos enthusiasts were soon identifiable by the bright orange cheese coating that covered their fingers. But there was another giveaway that they had been snacking: a garlic-laden, oppressive odor emanating from their mouths. The socially stigmatizing condition became known as "Doritos breath." And while the snack still packs a potent post-mastication smell, it’s not nearly as severe as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. So what happened?
Like most consumer product companies, Frito-Lay regularly solicits the opinions of focus groups on how to improve their products. The company spent more than a decade compiling requests, which eventually boiled down to two recurring issues: Doritos fans wanted a cheesier taste, and they also wanted their breath to stop wilting flowers.
The latter complaint was not considered a pressing issue. Despite their pungent nature, Doritos were a $1.3 billion brand in the early 1990s, so clearly people were willing to risk interpersonal relationships after inhaling a bag. But in the course of formulating a cheesier taste—which the company eventually dubbed Nacho Cheesier Doritos—they found that it altered the impact of the garlic powder used in making the chip. Infused with the savory taste known as umami, the garlic powder was what gave Doritos their lingering stink. Tinkering with the garlic flavoring had the unintended—but very happy—consequence of significantly reducing the smell.
“It was not an objective at all,” Stephen Liguori, then-vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay, told the Associated Press in April 1992. “It turned out to be a pleasant side effect of the new and improved seasoning.”
Frito-Lay offered snack-sized bags of the new flavor and enlisted former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman to promote it. Ever since, complaints of the scent of Doritos wafting from the maws of co-workers have been significantly reduced, and the Nacho Cheesier variation has remained the Doritos flavor of choice among consumers.
When Arch West died in 2011 at the age of 97, his family decided to sprinkle Doritos in his grave. They were plain. Not because of the smell, but because his daughter, Jana Hacker, believed that mourners wouldn’t want nacho cheese powder on their fingers.