Food for Thought

Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company. (CHF Collections)

Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company. (CHF Collections)

Food for thought, food for love, even food for life. Food is far more than a list of ingredients on food labels. Fat, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, preservatives—these can’t give the whole story of food.

Not even CHF can give the whole story of food, but here’s some food for conversation. The topic of the month is processed food in all its many forms. I like history, and CHF likes history. So lets jump back in time with Sarah Everts, who shows that civilization and preserved food go hand in hand in “Processed: Food Science and the Modern Meal.” Sarah begins her story deep in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, so expect a few surprises.

Chemical Heritage’s Clay Cansler uncovers a 19th century way to process beef that was invented by a famous chemist and a roadbuilder. Even more surprising than its origins is the fact that the method is still in use today.

Some processed food stories appear to start out as fairy tales, with valiant heroes rescuing us from health hazards. David Schleifer shows us just how wrong these tales can go in his history of transfats, in which a food hero is unmasked as a villain.

I forgot to mention calories, which are now always included on food labels. Calories have their own history: born in a 19th-century chemistry lab, used by scientists to figure out how much work a laborer could do, and then counted by millions of dieters in the 20th century. Check out the calorie’s background here.

Anyone with a sweet tooth might like Jesse Hicks’s history of saccharine. In it President Theodore Roosevelt tells the man behind the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act that “anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot. Dr. Rixey gives it to me every day.” The overweight Roosevelt was on a diet prescribed by his doctor.  

From fats and calories it’s a short hop to vitamins, which got their start in processed food in part because of another Roosevelt. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the National Nutrition Conference for Defense to address the problem of an undernourished nation. The result: vitamin enrichment of food became standard. But, as Diane Wendt shows in “Vitamins Come to Dinner,” we may be putting a little too much faith in vitamin supplements.

No blog post on food can be complete without considering taste. In this podcast we explore the first synthetic flavors and discover how the genes of supertasters—people with an acute sense of taste–might offer health benefits.

And finally a conversation with David Schleifer and Bryant Simon on how today’s food got so processed. Watch the webcast, “Why the Chicken Became a Nugget and Other Tales of Processed Food.

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