Processed: Food Science and the Modern Meal

Processed food has been around for millennia, but after World War II something changed. Watch as historian Bryant Simon and sociologist David Schleifer discuss how trans fats and chicken nuggets have influenced those who make and those who eat food. Image from Ljósmyndir Sigfúsar Eymundssonar Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík, Wikimedia Commons.

Deep in the bellies of the great pyramids, pharaohs and queens began their voyage into the afterlife. Salt-cured fish and fowl were among the many provisions entombed with Egyptian royalty to nourish them on their long journey. Egyptians have been using salt to extend the lifetime of food for at least 4,000 years. Indeed, for most of recorded human history, salt curing has been a preferred way to preserve food, a necessity for cold winters, distant wars, or long expeditions to new worlds—from the Americas to the afterlife.

“The big change comes in the 19th century,” says food historian Harvey Levenstein. In 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte awarded French innovator Nicolas Appert 12,000 francs for his invention of canning. Napoleon had an army to feed and needed a ready supply of long-lasting food. Later that same century industrialists used Appert’s discovery and the inventions of many others to begin mass-producing canned produce, cereal, and crackers. For the first time food was made at factories far from consumers. And by the 1910s the food we eat was well on its way to industrialization.

What follows are three food-processing stories each with its own defining moment in the 1910s.

We start with the American canning industry, which in 1913 launched a research center to study the bacteriology of food spoilage. The reason? A public terrified of being poisoned by canned foods.

Across the Atlantic, in 1912 French chemist Louis Camille Maillard discovered that many of the flavors, odors, and colors that make food inviting are the result of heating together amino acids and sugars. Think of the delicious odors wafting off freshly baked bread, the rich color of soy sauce, or the delectable flavor of a barbecued steak. The Maillard reaction became one of food science’s most important phenomena. Unfortunately for food lovers scientists later discovered a dark side to this reaction.

Finally, the late 1910s saw the launch of an industrialized fresh-food icon: iceberg lettuce. Lettuce tycoons used California’s endless growing season, state-of-the-art refrigeration technology, and an extensive rail system to make iceberg one of America’s most consumed vegetables. Chosen for its travel hardiness rather than aesthetic qualities, iceberg lettuce would set the precedent for the modern fresh-produce industry.

Canning: From Craft to Science

Canning has its roots in France, perhaps surprising given that French cuisine is associated with dishes made from garden-fresh ingredients. But in 1795 the French government faced the fact that it’s not easy winning battles abroad when your soldiers are hungry and malnourished. That year the French government established a 12,000-franc prize for whoever could find a way to preserve food—from milk and meat to fruits and vegetables.

Nicolas Appert took more than a decade to develop a canning process that involved cooking food in glass jars and then sealing them with cork. In 1810 Appert published L’art de conserver pendant plusiers années toutes les substances animales et végétales and collected his prize money. Appert’s achievement didn’t escape the notice of British inventor Peter Durand, who soon applied for a British patent to preserve food using techniques similar to Appert’s, though Durand sealed his food in tin containers as well as glass jars.

Canning was initially used to keep soldiers and explorers fed, yet nobody knew why canning worked. Even after the establishment of germ theory in the late 19th century, canners couldn’t figure out exactly why some of their food turned rotten. In the early 20th century, notes food historian Gabriella M. Petrick, newspapers were full of accounts of sorority picnics gone awry from salads made from canned vegetables or children near death from botulism. For that reason many looked upon canned food—already in existence for a century—with suspicion and fear.

The Heinz Company realized bad cans were bad for business. From the 1890s to 1920s the company mandated weekly manicures for its canning-factory workers to ensure that any bacteria lurking beneath employees’ fingernails stayed out of the food. Heinz employees were required to shower and change their underwear regularly.

“This forced regime sounds a bit draconian,” Petrick says, but in an era when food-factory hygiene was not universally adopted, what might have been intrusive to workers was good for consumers.