H uman beings have been confronted with the need to preserve food ever since the first hunter killed the first mammoth and wondered what to do with all that meat! From drying and salting to smoking, fermenting, and covering the off-flavor of spoiling foods with exotic spices and peppers, the search for means of preserving food became a search both for the ability to store food in times of scarcity and to conserve its nutritional value. Such attempts led (if the legend is correct) to the exploration of Asia and the discovery of the Americas—and certainly to the centrality of salt mining in all cultures (Kurlansky 2003). Processing was the first step in controlling diet (Shephard 2000). By the eighteenth century, the traditional forms of processing foods gave way to the notion of "manufactured" food that was both accessible and healthy. Indeed some of these methods, such as the use of vinegar to pickle foods, which became wildly popular in England in the sixteenth century, quickly were appropriated for dieting purposes. Vinegar as food preservative quickly became vinegar as dieting aid.
Canning, the first modern method of food processing, was invented in France by the cook Nicolaus Appert (1750-1841) in 1795 to solve the problem of feeding Napoleon Bonaparte's troops. Napoleon's army had one seemingly insurmountable problem, bringing sufficient food with them to match the speed of their march. Malnutrition was so rampant among his troops that he was losing men much faster to scurvy and starvation than to enemy bullets. In desperate need of a way to preserve food for their army, the French Government offered a sizable reward of i2,000 francs to anyone who could invent a method of keeping food fresh. At this point, Appert, an obscure Parisian chef and winemaker proposed that the processes commonly used to preserve wine should also work for food, so he began experimenting. After years of work, Appert perfected his preservation
process of sealing food in glass bottles with pitch (a tarlike substance), then heating it to high temperatures. Appert's canned food was quickly put through field-testing, and it passed with flying colors. In 1810, the Parisian chef received his cash prize from Napoleon himself. This was an extremely powerful military development, and the French attempted to keep it a secret, but it inevitably leaked across the English Channel. By the time of the Battle at Waterloo in 1815, nearly all of the troops on both sides were eating canned rations.
The first vacuum-packing plant in France opened in 1804, and in 1810 an Englishman named Peter Durand patented the use of metal cans which were far more durable than their French glass predecessors (Shephard 2000: 226ff). Although canning started off as a military development, refrigeration in this time period was primitive at best, and canned food was just as appealing to civilians as it was to military forces. As people realized that the risk of becoming sick from foods preserved by canning was dramatically lower than from fresh foods that were constantly threatening to spoil, the civilian demand for canned foods skyrocketed.
Parallel to this development, food concentrates as a health aid and health food presented highly processed food as a means of improving the diet of the working class. While concentrates were known as early as the sixteenth century, it was only with the rise of food chemistry and "modern notions" of processed food and health that they became a staple. In 1848, the German food chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-73), then working at Liverpool University, developed his "Beef Extract" when the daughter of a friend developed typhus. This "new Soup for Invalids" became a standard medication for illness but also a new foodstuff to feed the "craving multitudes" of workers who could not afford meat. Thereafter, Liebig's Fleischextract competed with Oxo and Bovril for the world health food market (Shephard 2000: i75ff).
A century later, Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) duplicated a food-preservation technique he had seen in Arctic cultures, creating the first processed quick-frozen foods. Birdseye built on a new technology of generating cold air by the use of compressed gas. This led to a whole new industry of safe and fresh-tasting processed foods. Birds-eye developed this process based on his own experiences living in Labrador as a fur trapper. In 1917, he returned to the U.S.A., where he began to advocate "quick frozen" foods as a healthier alternative to fresh foods. In the 1920s, Majorie Merriweather Post arranged to purchase
Birdseye's process for 22 million dollars, and the Postum Company became General Foods. It was seen as the salvation of the modern family's health: "The potential of ... the family-sized food freezer, is its power, when ably used to make us really free; free from want, free from the usual fears of security—and I dare say free from envy" (Smith 2001: 186). Thus, one generation of processed foods as health foods gave way to the next.
Yet as early as 1942, Philip Wylie in his Generation of Vipers condemned the collapse of social relations in America, which he blamed on the unholy alliance of women seeking leisure time and big business, which markets to them. By the 1950s, his target was the frozen TV dinner, which he included in his 1954 attack article "Science has Spoiled My Supper" (Wylie 1954). He saw the collapse of the family, its cohesion, and its health, as promoted by the quick fix of frozen foods. Today, the World Health Organization shares his pessimistic attitude toward processed foods. In fact, it recommends that people reduce their intake of processed foods as much as possible. What caused this change in the perception of processed foods?
For most of human history, the majority of sickness and death in the human population was caused by infectious disease. Most diseases were the result of bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and people commonly became infected by eating contaminated food. However, with improved sanitation, better healthcare, and safer food-preservation techniques developed in the past fifty years, the risk of catching a serious infectious disease has dropped dramatically. The reduction in the incidence and severity of infectious diseases, when combined with improved access to food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, has paved the way for a new kind of health problem: chronic diseases. These diseases, often referred to as "diseases of affluence," include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. The main difference between infectious and chronic diseases is that most chronic diseases result from a lifestyle of poor health choices rather than chance infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rank poor diet, namely with an excess of calories, high levels of sodium, and unhealthy fats (a major characteristic of many processed foods), as a major risk factor for many chronic diseases. Dieting means, in part, eliminating such foods from one's daily consumption.
Processed foods traditionally were considered healthier than fresh foods because they are sterile and do not spoil or become contaminated easily. When eating contaminated food was a significant cause of disease, this was a very legitimate argument for increased consumption of processed foods. However, with the recent improvements in food transportation and sanitation, the risk of becoming sick from eating fresh food in the Western world is very low. Therefore, processed foods are no longer advantageous for their sterility, and the high levels of sodium and transfats used in processing are far more threatening to health than the negligible risk of becoming sick from fresh foods. From the praise of canning and concentrates in the eighteenth century as the source of health and longevity, processed foods in the current "Fast Food Nation," have come to represent illness and early death.
See also Behavior; Brillat-Savarin; Fast Food; Hopkins; Medieval Diets; Post; Spurlock
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