Short History of Processed Foods

Appert’s Heated. Birdseye’s Frozen.

As you know from your visits to the grocery store, good, healthy and delicious processed foods come in many different kinds of packages and containers that protect the food from invading microbes and make them safe and available year round (See the Safefood Processed Foods Grocery List). This wasn’t always true, of course. Either food was fresh or the food posed dangers, and the foods we’ve all come to enjoy whenever we want were only there when nature allowed them to be.

While several kinds of protective techniques, packages, and containers exist, the two most prominent methods of processing food are still canning and freezing. For these truly revolutionizing developments in history, two men deserve our thanks: Nicolas Appert and Clarence Birdseye. Here are their stories.

Nicolas Appert

It was the end of the 1700’s and the Napoleonic wars raged. As Napoleon pushed forward into Russia, the retreating Russian army left a stripped and ravaged countryside . . . and no food. As a result, Napoleon’s army was suffering more casualties from scurvy, malnutrition, and starvation than from enemy muskets. The French government offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food.

Nicolas Appert, an obscure candy-maker, brewer, and baker took up the challenge. He had a theory that if fresh foods were put in airtight containers and sufficient heat applied, they would keep. After 14 years of experimentation, he won the prize–given to him by Napoleon himself.

Appert packed his foods in bottles, corked them, and submerged them in boiling water. Without realizing it, he sterilized them, stopping bacterial spoilage.

In 1810, an Englishman named Peter Durand solved the problem of bottles breaking in transit. Using tin-coated steel, Durand developed the “canister” with a soldered cover. Soon all over Britain people were eating “embalmed” meat, as they called it. The can was born.

An ambitious young man in London, William Underwood, was intrigued by the idea of canned food. In 1821 he went to Boston and established a canning plant overlooking Boston Harbor. Underwood canned all kinds of products: vegetables, fruits, and condiments. He produced grape and mushroom catsup, jams and jellies, and mustard. In 1828 he shipped milk to South America. In 1835 he imported tomato seeds from England, grew his first crop, and preserved it. This was the beginning of canning in the United States. Underwood (as in “deviled ham”) is America’s oldest canning company.

Clarence Birdseye

Nearly a century later, a man named Clarence Birdseye was on an expedition in Labrador for the U.S. Geographic Service. While on the expedition, Birdseye noticed that fish and caribou meat that had been exposed to the Arctic air was still tender and fresh tasting even when cooked months later. Knowing that mere freezing and cold storage would not preserve the quality and taste of the food, he concluded that the secret lay in rapid freezing at extremely low temperatures.

Back in the United States, Birdseye developed his “Multiplate Quick Freeze Machine” — a crude operation. It consisted of a new garbage can of corrugated iron containing a layer of steel plates and fitted with coils carrying a refrigerant of sodium chloride brine. Food was placed between the steel plates, frozen at -40° F and kept there for five weeks.

By 1925 Birdseye was in the frozen food business. His first product was frozen fish fillets, and he called his enterprise the General Seafoods Company. Birdseye then applied his quick-freezing principle to meats, poultry, fruits, and vegetables.

Initially unsuccessful with consumers, frozen food has since become an indispensable part of the American diet. The Birds Eye operation now thrives as part of Dean Foods Vegetable Company.