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A Brief History of Agriculture

Bit by bit, row by row

Before diving into the development of food processing, let’s first explore how food was grown throughout the millennia. Very early techniques date back to prehistory and involve sun-drying, fermenting, salting, and cooking foods to prevent them from spoiling and to enhance flavor. Eventually foods, especially grains, were developed into so-called secondary foods, meaning they became ingredients for final food products. One of the earliest examples would be what many of us still eat regularly today: bread! As populations grew, so did the need to process more food. Mills of various sizes were developed utilizing different means of power, including wind, and moving waterways.

Advances in farming techniques during the Middle Ages, such as the mouldboard plough and irrigation, increased crop yields. Further advances came during the British Agriculture Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, which introduced planned crop rotation, convertible husbandry, and crops from the New World. A third, known as the ‘Green Revolution’ occurred in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of chemical fertilizers, high-yield crop breeds, and farming machinery equipment. It has been speculated we are on the brink of a Fourth Agricultural Revolution with the anticipated arrival of new (and viable) technologies such as using AI to control autonomous robots.

Napoleon, Prizes and SPAM®

“Perfect! I’ll pose on this rock that already has my name carved in it. Steady now Marengo…”

The development of food processing technology remained largely unchanged until the early 19th century. As is often a driver of technological advancement, military funding provided the impetus for change. Since time immemorial, humans sought ways to take food with them and to have it at the ready whenever needed. But it wasn’t until a certain military commander put up some prize money that things really took a turn. And that commander? Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon is famously quoted as saying “An army travels on its stomach.” The brilliant military mind recognized that a well-fed army was a victorious one, and so in 1795 he offered a prize of 12,000 francs (a fortune at the time) to anyone who came up with a method of large-scale food preservation. Enter the hero of modern food processing: Nicholas Appert. His background as a brewer and confectioner led him to discover that food, when cooked inside a sealed glass container, did not spoil unless that seal was broken. (It would be another 50 years until Louis Pasteur discovered the true cause for spoilage and methods to prevent it.) When he displayed his bottles at the 1806 Food Expo in Paris, he received little fanfare from the judges. But after trials with the French navy and a total of 15 years of experimentation, he was finally awarded the prize in 1810. Appert used the small fortune to build the first commercial food processing plant, called the House of Appert, outside Paris. A British merchant, Peter Durand, patented the first tin can in England that same year, and thus canned food was born. Fast-forward a century and we see the invention of Spam, created by Jay Hormel before the advent of WW2. This canned meat as carried by Allied soldiers worldwide, and some parts of the world experienced processed food for the first time. The legacy of Spam is so enduring that it is still a popular dish in Korea and other parts of Asia.

Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

“I hate to say it Betty, but I prefer the Ping Pong Paddle 9 to these new versions”

Food processing really took off in the 20th century and the focus slowly shifted from simply stopping spoilage and increasing shelf life to enhancing the palatability of the food itself. A number of new methods were introduced including dehydration, concentrates, freeze drying, IQF, and adding artificial sweeteners, coloring, and preservatives. The transformation after WW2 to an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society in the US created demand for quick, convenient and nutritional meal options for busy workers. Enter the frozen “TV” dinner, accompanied by an ever-increasing amount of processed food options. Appliances such as refrigerators and microwaves became commonplace. As manufacturers scrambled for consumers’ attention by adding more flavoring (specifically sodium and sugars), the medical community announced there can in fact be too much of a good thing. Suddenly processed foods were held responsible for most of Americans’ increasing health issues, ranging from childhood obesity to cardiovascular disease. Obesity rates rose (and are still rising) and soon health-consciousness wasn’t just in health journals, it was part of the marketing plan. Processed food became synonymous with unhealthy food and overtook smoking as the primary public health concern.

So where is the future of processed foods headed? While the data trends of obesity rates in the US have been steadily increasing over the past few decades, the percent of adults who are classified as “overweight” (BMI of 25 – 30) since a high of 37.2% in 2021 had been decreasing before the onset of the Covid pandemic of 2020 [source]. There has been a shift in the industry to sell healthy, less calorically dense foods, and one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry is meatless protein alternatives. Of course the act of processing food does not inherently make it unhealthy, and a capitalist market will always seek to attract and delight as many customers as possible by creating the most enticing and memorable flavors possible. Consumers have however responded positively to healthier offerings, and it’s all but guaranteed we’ll see many more in our supermarket aisles soon. Food production, harvesting and processing continue to advance as new technologies are developed, introduced, and accepted. Stay tuned as we at Innotech continue to innovate food processing equipment for this exciting future.


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