Process Plant Works, Yorkshire

Food Processing Through History

Process Plant Works, YorkshireFood processing has evolved massively over the centuries, and can be found in some form or other in ancient and modern cultures. Getting food from the field to the plate on a vast scale has developed significantly. Sourcing food and eating enough to survive was the daily focus of every individual all over the world. The speed of the process, means that unlike centuries ago, we don’t spend all of our time preparing and storing food. Being able to process, preserve and transport food has also made life a little easier for people in countries that struggle.

When we think of modern food processing, we envisage colossal and efficient food processing plants. All kinds of food and beverages pass through these high performance, hygienic steel installations. But food production and processing has been going for a long time, in fact millions of years!

Preserving & Cooking Food, Yorkshire

As early as 1.5 million years ago, our ancestors began heating meat, vegetables and seeds, simple but effective. Making the food last longer followed, as people figured out that adding salt, drying or smoking food could prolong its life. This practice was popular in places like Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, around 9600 BC. Knowledge was passed on at first from person to person, and increasingly through recorded information. Writing contributed a great deal to this passing on of experience and methods etc.

Some preservation and cooking techniques used by ancient civilisations are still common practice today, although more efficiently. Processes including cooking, preserving, pickling, salting, smoking, fermenting and drying have been seen throughout history. They have been refined and developed by ancient Greeks, and in India, China and Peru.

Pasteurization and Canning, Game Changing Advances

Certain problems were overcome in the 19th century as pasteurization and canning emerged. They ensured that food was more accessible and safer to consume, and marked an important stage in the history of food processing. French microbiologist Louis Pasteur researched, developed and named the pasteurization process in the 1860’s. It was a hugely successful way to slow down bacteria growth in liquids such as milk. Applying heat kills microbes without affecting the taste or nutritional quality. These discoveries advanced food production immeasurably, allowing the ability to store food and liquids long term, and transport them across the world.

50 years before this, Nicolas Appert [a French chef] was experimenting on preservation with heat, cork and wax and glass bottles. This resulted in La Maison Appert (The House of Appert), the first food bottling factory in the world. The tin can was also developed in the 1800s, but early versions were apparently not exactly safe. Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition was mysteriously doomed, as crew members died one after the other with no obvious cause. It was only in the 1980s, when a few of the frozen bodies were found, that tests revealed the likely cause. The food cans were sealed with lead, and the bodies contained up to 20 times more than normal, enough to cause acute poisoning. Canned food was a staple of soldiers in World War 1, so obviously lead was no longer used by then.

Food Processing in Modern Times

During the time of the Second World War and space race, ready-to-eat packaged meals took off [No pun intended]. Quickly prepared meals with an extremely long shelf life were demanded as people’s lives became busier. Even more processes appeared in the 20th century, such as freeze drying, evaporation and spray drying. Preservatives were increasingly added to food stuffs, as well as flavourings, sweeteners and colours to improve look and flavour. Ovens, microwaves and blenders made light work of meal prep, and frozen dinners, instant noodles and baking mixes became firm favourites.

In the late 20th century concerns started to arise regarding the nutritional value of many processed foods. Factors like the long term effects of preservatives were also looked at, and more recently the impact of plastic packaging. Salt and sugar have been reduced to some extent in many products, and packaging must now display nutritional information including fat and calorie content. There have been more advances in food processing in the last 200 years than since the beginning of civilisation.

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