Tuesday 8 January 2019

Origin of Old Food Products

My wife and I were recently discussing how certain food products came to be used, marketed or even feared in past decades and centuries.

Many readers will remember, and possibly still eat such products as Spam or Bovril. Tomatoes, a fruit now common in diets world-wide was avoided in Europe in the 18th century.

Some foods came into common use, or at least were made more popular when they were part of rations eaten by soldiers in the two world wars of the 20th century.

Stories circulated in the 16th and 17th century, based on inaccurate information, that tomatoes were part of a family of poisonous plants. It was also believed that the acidic fruit leached lead from pewter plates thus causing lead poisoning. In fact, adding lead to pewter occurred much later that reports of such ailments which may have been a result of the addition of “sweeteners” with lead compounds to inferior wines.

Spam, a brand of cooked meat made by Hormel Foods, was introduced in 1937. Its sale in tins made it a ready food source for wide distribution and use by the military during World War II. While it has be assailed by thousands over the decades with disparaging names, it has come to be widely accepted part of diets in dozens of countries.

Bovril, now owned by Unilever, is a thick, salty, meat-extract paste which can be used in drinks, soups, stews, porridge, or as a spread on toast. It was developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston, a Scottish butcher. It was in Edinburgh where he first decided to process beef trimmings to process to make a glaze. He immigrated to Canada in 1871, bringing with him his recipes. There he developed his Johnston’s Fluid Beef (brand Bovril), supplying it as a packaged, preserved meat product to the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War. It was widely used during World War I. The product has been available on supermarket shelves although in 2004 the recipe was changed to remove beef ingredients.

Many foods we now eat were developed for the military, of many nations. There was a need for packaged, nutritious and easily-transported products. Canning or bottling of foods was developed at the end of the 19th century which allowed long-term preservation and transportation. Among these foodstuffs are energy bars, a variety of canned goods, crackers and deli meats.

Freeze-drying, originally used for packaging and transporting blood products and vaccines during World War II, became popular for preserving many foods such as meat, coffee, fruits and vegetables. The process made them lightweight and long-lasting. I remember tasting them (if that is an appropriate word) when working as a young geologist in the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada. You just had to add water and cook.

Snack foods, the ultimate in processing and packaging, are the result of developments in food preservation. Corn-puffs actually came out during World War I when Walter, Gerber, Fritz Stettler and James Kraft created dehydrated, preservable cheese dust, emulsified with salt. The packaged snack became popular and profitable when Charles Elmer Doolin invented the Cheetos® brand, composed of cheese-flavoured cornmeal, or puffed corn, in 1948.