Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday: Food Innovations

The Royal Society, an independent UK academy of science promoting the natural and applied sciences, recently published a list of the top 20 food innovations. Interestingly, the top three spots were reserved for modern methods of food preservation: refrigeration, pasteurization/ sterilization, and canning.

Reading the list made me realize how little thought even the food-obsessed like me give our food, as the large majority of these innovations are used before food even reaches the store. For instance, six of the innovations improve food production, e.g. the fishing net, crop rotation, the plow, irrigation, the threshing machine/combine harvester, and selective breeding/strains. Six others have to do with processing and large-capacity or long-term food storage (home canning does happen, it's rare these days) e.g. pasteurization/sterilization, canning, grinding/milling, fermentation, the cork and the barrel. These sometimes simple changes in how we approach our food are a defense against both starvation and food-borne illness.

Of the remaining nine items on the list: refrigeration, the oven, baking, the pot, the knife, eating utensils, the microwave oven and frying, we don't really think about them as a barrier to pathogens. If you think about it, most of the innovations keep food out of the "temperature danger zone," or otherwise act as a barrier to pathogens. Even a knife can be used to cut "bad" parts of food away, and to make food small enough to be cooked safely.

We tend to take all of these innovations for granted, but food production and food safety are a major factor in our current prosperity. In particular, Americans never think about cholera or typhoid - but these two diseases are still serious threats in areas where these kinds of technologies are limited. We've also conquered many of the vitamin deficiencies suffered by our forbears, due in part to these sometimes simple technologies for food production and storage.

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