Food Processing Careers Background
As a fundamental human need, food always has played a central part in our lives. Our ancestors lived or died according to their ability to grow food, to hunt for food, or to fight for food. People have always sought out new food sources, and throughout history people have identified the plants, insects, fungi, and animals in their region capable of sustaining them. In time, agrarian cultures were able to trade or sell their surplus food supplies for other goods and services, and food became an important part of the commerce of a society. As societies came into contact with each other, they also learned of different types of foods available in different parts of the world. The first colonists in America, for example, survived the first winter only with the assistance of Native Americans, who had learned to harvest and use such indigenous foods as corn, pumpkin, squash, and turkeys.
Some of the earliest methods of processing foods developed out of a direct need to assist people in surviving long winters. Because there was no chance to harvest fruits and vegetables in winter, it was important that people find a way to store enough food for the entire season. Drying and salting meats preserved it for months, as these methods removed or otherwise made unavailable the water needed by microorganisms that might spoil the food. Pickled vegetables and fruits could be stored for long periods, because the high acid content of the pickling solution killed off microorganisms. Apples packed in coal would not ripen as quickly. Smoking foods was another preservation method, as smoke contains chemicals with both antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Each society in the harsher climates developed its own particular methods of storing food.
Before the industrial revolution, there were relatively few commercially processed and packaged food products. People bought their foods mostly in bulk out of barrels, bins, sacks, and jugs. These bulk products were sold in small stores; the supermarket did not exist. An important development in food preservation and processing was the canning process, first developed by the Parisian chef Nicolas Appert in 1810. He found that heating foods sealed in bottles or cans killed the bacteria that spoil food and removed oxygen, which allows foods to break down. Canning allowed foods to remain unspoiled for longer periods, and cans were also easy to transport.
As urban centers grew, so did the need for food that could be shipped easily. The industrial revolution had two major impacts on the food processing industry. The first was that the new mechanical systems allowed the development of inexpensive production of canned and processed goods. The second was that wages increased in the cities and people could afford to spend more money on food. People shifted from a diet of predominantly breads and grains to one that included meats, vegetables, and dairy products. Soon, consumer demand led manufacturers to develop an ever-increasing variety of foods.
In the 1920s, new refrigeration techniques allowed for the freezing of foods, a process that kept both flavor and nutritional value intact. Manufacturing processes, including the development of assembly line production methods, enabled companies to produce larger quantities of many different kinds of foods. For the first time, food manufacturers were able to provide foods of dependable and uniform quality as well as seasonal items year round. This provided the consumer with a wider variety of products that were easy to prepare and easy to store.
The early part of the 20th century, especially after World War I, saw a huge growth in the U.S. food industry. Manufacturers developed new and improved processing methods and varieties of new products. They also developed the containers and packages for suitable and safe handling of these products. The science of food technology became especially important around 1940, as the United States prepared to enter World War II. New methods of processing, preparing, packaging, and transporting foods were needed to supply the troops as they went into battle. A variety of chemical preservation methods were developed, which led to the Food Additive Amendment of 1958, which controlled the type and amount of chemical preservatives that could be added to foods.
The 20th century also saw a major change in the ways people purchased food. Prior to World War I, consumers were most likely to buy their food at small neighborhood stores. But the introduction of trucks and automobiles not only made people more mobile but also allowed foods and other products to be more easily transported. The implementation of improved methods of processing and packaging food also made more types of foods available than ever before. The first supermarkets began to appear, offering a greater selection of goods and combining many small shops under one roof: a fruit and vegetable stand, a meat market, a dry goods store. Chains of stores were able to lower their costs by purchasing and marketing together so they could afford to sell foods with lower profit margins than the smaller shops. The supermarkets made money because selling more products offset the lower profit they made on each item. By the 1950s, most Americans bought their food in supermarkets instead of small groceries and specialty shops, and going to the supermarket became an American way of life.
The early supermarkets were still quite small compared to the supermarkets of today. U.S. consumers now select groceries from an assortment of some 10,000 to 12,000 items, as opposed to a limited selection of only about 1,000 items available in the 1950s. Two-thirds of today’s grocery store items are new or have been improved materially within the past few decades. As nutrition specialists bring to focus the importance of a well-balanced diet that includes predominantly grains, vegetables, and fruits, there is an increased demand for these products. With the increased demand, the food industry searches for new ways to preserve, package, and deliver these items.
Today’s household includes many timesavers that have lightened food preparation chores. Frozen dinners, frozen bread dough, dehydrated foods, and other products provide millions of people with their meals. A growing segment of the marketplace is home meal replacement. These are prepared items, including entrees and side dishes, that are cooked and ready-to-eat, or that require only warming. They are not frozen but kept in the deli or other refrigerated section of the store.
Developments in food and food technology continue today. Food processors have developed such methods as nitrogen flushing, which replaces oxygen in packages with nitrogen to retard spoiling, and irradiation, which involves exposing foods to low levels of radiation to reduce or remove completely the microorganisms that might spoil the food or pose a danger to human health. Irradiation is now used on a variety of foods and in many countries across the world. Foods, such as tomatoes, can be more quickly ripened using chemicals, gases, and other processes. Food scientists have long worked with genetic manipulation, creating such foods as seedless grapes and oranges and “burpless” cucumbers; more recently, scientists have developed methods of introducing new genes into fruits, vegetable, and animals to change various properties, such as color, flavor, and shelf life.
The emphasis on a healthier style of eating has resulted in the development, production, and wide distribution of low-fat and nonfat food items, including fat-free sour cream and potato chips. Ironically, just as food labs are discovering ways to chemically alter food to reduce or eliminate the fat content, an increasing section of the market is demanding organic, or completely naturally grown, produce. The tomato that has been exposed to chemicals or gases to enhance its size or color or to increase its ripening time is becoming less desirable than the one grown naturally. Specialty supermarkets devoted to the sale of organic foods are opening in greater numbers across the country. As the market for organic, all-natural produce grows, a corresponding rise will occur in the processed foods made from such organic produce.