Since the ancients times, food was one of the top assets that changed the course of generations and the direction of history. Great pharaohs and queens began their afterlife journeys with lot of food ready to fulfill them after death. Salt-cured fish, grain and a lot of provisions were entombed with the Egyptian kings, many of these lasting more then 4,000 years. Preserving the food was a priority for the winter, wars and long expeditions to new worlds – from the Americas to North Pole.
For generations, keeping food was a big step in surviving, but on the long run the big change came in the 19th century when Napoleon awarded Nicolas Appert 12,000 francs for his invention of canning. It was very important for the French army to have a ready supply of food. Later, the industrialists used this to begin the mass-producing canned produce, cereals, meat and vegetables. This was the beginning of new food era when people started to have access to more food and more important to food that was produced far from its consumers.
How good or bad is modern food for us nowadays?
The canning process had a long journey especially because in the beginning this kind of food was used for soldiers. Still, nobody knew if this was working as it was supposed to as long as some of the cans turned the food rotten. Newspapers from the early 20th century were full of news about children that were near death because of botulism, mostly from canned vegetables.
These reasons turned everyone to look at canned food with suspicion and fear.
This was the time for the companies to reconsider their process of canning the food. Looks like there was not so easy to keep food for long time and still be good for the population.
Canning was bad for the business and most of the companies mandated manicures for their workers to ensure that any bacteria beneath fingernails stays out of the processed food. This wasn’t the only reason and we will see below.
Using the additives
One of the first processes was used to kill microbes was the use of additives such as sodium benzoate and formaldehydes. The first of them was associated with a lot of health problems, including some major epidemics. Some studies showed that the sodium benzoate (which is still used today in canned food) is more toxic than the processed sugar or high fructose corn syrup. This has a very little media coverage and most of the time population is presented with the good-old story about the fact that this additive is found in nature.
Of course, like many others chemicals it has an organic form in nature. Some traces we can find in blueberries, apples, plums and cinnamon. In this terms, there are no known effects about the organic form.
The synthetic version is toxic, because it is made in a laboratory and the final product is a cheap, toxic agent that can kill living organisms.
Coca-Cola announced in 2008 that is in the process to remove this preservative from its products. The foundation was that sodium benzoate in combination with vitamin C – which can be found in many soft drinks, or is just added- reacts and form a carcinogenic benzene. This is known to damage the human DNA and increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease including liver damage.
This means that this synthetic additive is dangerous for our future generations. There are no exact studies about the changes of DNA, but whenever this occurs the effects on the organism is unpredictably random.
As I was saying earlier, food was supposed to feed us on long term and protect the future of our generations, giving them food variations, culinary safety and new cultures approach. Instead, most of our culinary habits turned against us, killing us slowly and attacking the future generations. It is great indeed to enjoy bananas, for example, all over the year, but this demand has its price.Food is supposed to feed us on long term and protect our future generations #food Click To Tweet
Keeping the flavor
One of the major questions for the food industry was how to preserve the flavors as some of the food was lacking this feature once it was canned. One of the processes of canning involved cooking at high temperature for long periods. Of course, this approach was a sacrifice for the flavor. The solution that came out was adding salt.
For example string beans that were cooking for long time leach out the green color and nobody wants in its plate a grayish bean. Adding salt in the process the cooking time is reduced and the color is maintained.
But what was once a desirable additive, a natural one that was used for centuries, has become a modern health enemy, guilty for heart diseases, obesity and hypertension. The short version is that the modern food has a lot of salt and this affects most of the population.
When eating large amounts of sodium, the kidneys have trouble with the excess in the bloodstream. As large quantities accumulates, the body keeps water to dilute the sodium. This increases both the liquid surrounding the cells and the volume of blood. More blood means more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels. On long terms the heart will feel this extra work leading to strokes and heart attacks.
Some recent studies showed that the key for a healthy life is to avoid most of the processed food and eat more vegetables and fruits. They are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium, despite the opposite aliments like bread, processed cheese and meat, pastry or chips.
The aseptic process
The main innovation in the food industry was the development of aseptic processing; this technique, which involves sterilizing the container separately from the food, was invented in Switzerland in 1960 for processing the milk and it is now used for juices and even tomatoes.
Philip Nelson who won the World Food Prize in 2007 explains the method:
Small volumes of food are heated to a precise temperature for a precise amount of time to prevent loss of nutrients. When you put something in a can, you have to heat the center so you end up overheating what’s on walls. Aseptic process helps avoid this problem. Then by storing the food in an oxygen-free space you prevent the reactions that affect flavor, colors and nutrients.
We all know how important taste and aroma are. But most of the time we don’t realize that we have sacrificed those for the all-year access to fresh fruits or vegetables. Tomatoes can be bought now all over the year, strawberries can be found in December and all these have an explanation.
The industrialization to produce fresh vegetables has led to the growing of varieties that can survive long-distances transport and long time.
While they look good, this is the cost of lack of flavor.
More, the change came in the late 1920s when entrepreneurs started to experiment with the freezing process. Initially it was the crushed ice that kept the vegetables fresh for days, but the new technology developed proved to me more reliable on long term.
Refrigerators become commonplace in the early 1930s, but it was not a roaring success. Both the frozen produce and the wax paper around it would melt into mush. The paper was then substituted for the plastic and “rebranded” as frosted food.
What about our fresh vegetables? How do they last so long?
Responsible for this is a new strategy: delaying ripening itself. This means the produce is pick earlier, transport to the market, the ripening is ignite and then comes the selling. Sometimes the scenario ripening can be calculated to coincide with the produce’ s appereance on the store shelves.
But this has a cost: flavor, color and texture. And we all know the difference from a farm/garden tomato and a supermarket one. This is why.
In the case of the supermarket tomato, controlling is actually the process that modify the ripening hormones and the genes that these hormones activate. This means that the tomato has a genetic mutation, the one that interferes with the softening that occurs during the ripening. Unfortunately for us, the same mutation that breeders have selected prevents the tomato to produce the flavor – part of the ripening.
No matter how long you leave a supermarket tomato in the sun, it will never achieve the color, flavor or texture of a garden one. And the difference is huge as long as the same tomato can “live” in our fridge for weeks.
What we have to know is that along with this strategy to delay the ripening, there are also some chemical interventions. And this is one of the major things we must know when going to the supermarket. For many fruits such as bananas, melons, apricots and papayas the ripening process is triggered by ethylene a plant hormone. It is responsible for turning the tomatoes from green to red. When the fruits sense this hormone a chain reaction begins: the fruit starts to ripen and produce its own ethylene and the fruit next to it sense it and starts its own ripening process. That can be the explanation for the fast ripening of fruits when they are kept together.
To prevent this reaction the fruit are picked green and kept in containers that hold chemicals, such as potassium permanganate. This substance increases the life of the fruits and double the lifespan without refrigeration. Cleaning fruits and vegetables before eating them is a must.Always wash your vegetables before you eat them #vegetables #freshfood #foodie Click To Tweet
It’s about the consumers
Over the last century the food industry has figured out how to tweak the plants in order to control the ripening and the freshness. Most of them were made by error and some of the just by studying the chemistry. All of these had an engine: the increasing demand of food, especially vegetables all over the year.
Now, the battle is about finding out how the tinkering has interfered with the ripening process and led to the loss of flavor and texture. A loss that most of the consumers are accepting for the simple convenience to have out-of-season vegetables.
Going further on this path is just a matter of time until there will be more chemical interventions and some genetic engineering. Everything depends on us if we are willing to pay this price for the habit to enjoy “fresh” vegetables.
Do you prefer garden tomatoes or the supermarket ones? How often do you buy them? I would really appreciate you point of view regarding out-of-season vegetables and the new impact on modern food.