Food Preservation (Encyclopedia of Science)
Food preservation refers to any one of a number of techniques used to prevent food from spoiling. All foods begin to spoil as soon as they are harvested or slaughtered. Some spoiling is caused by such microorganisms as bacteria and mold. Other spoilage results from chemical changes within the food itself due to natural processes such as enzyme action or oxidation.
Ages-old food preservation techniques include drying, smoking, cooling, freezing, fermenting, salting, pickling, and canning.
Drying and smoking. One of the most ancient methods of food preservation is sun- or air-drying. Drying works because it removes much of the food's water. Without adequate water, microorganisms cannot multiply and chemical activities greatly slow down. Dried meat was one of the earliest staple foods of hunters and nomads (people who constantly moved about). Once fire was discovered, prehistoric cave dwellers heat-dried meat and fish, which probably led to the development of smoking as another way to preserve these foods. The Phoenicians of the Middle East air-dried fish. Ancient Egyptians stockpiled dried grains. Native North Americans produced a nutritious food called pemmican by grinding together dried meat, dried fruit, and fat.
Cooling and freezing. Early northern societies quickly learned that coolness...
(The entire section is 1142 words.)
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Food Preservation (World of Microbiology and Immunology)
The term food preservation refers to any one of a number of techniques used to prevent food from spoiling. It includes methods such as canning, pickling, drying and freeze-drying, irradiation, pasteurization, smoking, and the addition of chemical additives. Food preservation has become an increasingly important component of the food industry as fewer people eat foods produced on their own lands, and as consumers expect to be able to purchase and consume foods that are out of season.
The vast majority of instances of food spoilage can be attributed to one of two major causes: (1) the attack by pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) such as bacteria and molds, or (2) oxidation that causes the destruction of essential biochemical compounds and/or the destruction of plant and animal cells. The various methods that have been devised for preserving foods are all designed to reduce or eliminate one or the other (or both) of these causative agents.
For example, a simple and common method of preserving food is by heating it to some minimum temperature. This process prevents or retards spoilage because high temperatures kill or inactivate most kinds of pathogens. The addition of compounds known as BHA and BHT to foods also prevents spoilage in another different way. These compounds are known to act as antioxidants, preventing chemical reactions that cause the oxidation of food that results in its spoilage. Almost all techniques of preservation are designed to extend the life of food by acting in one of these two ways.
The search for methods of food preservation probably can be traced to the dawn of human civilization. People who lived through harsh winters found it necessary to find some means of insuring a food supply during seasons when no fresh fruits and vegetables were available. Evidence for the use of dehydration (drying) as a method of food preservation, for example, goes back at least 5,000 years. Among the most primitive forms of food preservation that are still in use today are such methods as smoking, drying, salting, freezing, and fermenting.
Early humans probably discovered by accident that certain foods exposed to smoke seem to last longer than those that are not. Meats, fish, fowl, and cheese were among such foods. It appears that compounds present in wood smoke have antimicrobial actions that prevent the growth of organisms that cause spoilage. Today, the process of smoking has become a sophisticated method of food preservation with both hot and cold forms in use. Hot smoking is used primarily with fresh or frozen foods, while cold smoking is used most often with salted products. The most advantageous conditions for each kind of smokingir velocity, relative humidity, length of exposure, and salt content, for examplere now generally understood and applied during the smoking process. For example, electrostatic precipitators can be employed to attract smoke particles and improve the penetration of the particles into meat or fish. So many alternative forms of preservation are now available that smoking no longer holds the position of importance it once did with ancient peoples. More frequently, the process is used to add interesting and distinctive flavors to foods.
Because most disease-causing organisms require a moist environment in which to survive and multiply, drying is a natural technique for preventing spoilage. Indeed, the act of simply leaving foods out in the sun and wind to dry out is probably one of the earliest forms of food preservation. Evidence for the drying of meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables go back to the earliest recorded human history. At some point, humans also learned that the drying process could be hastened and improved by various mechanical techniques. For example, the Arabs learned early on that apricots could be preserved almost indefinitely by macerating them, boiling them, and then leaving them to dry on broad sheets. The product of this technique, quamaradeen, is still made by the same process in modern Muslim countries.
Today, a host of dehydrating techniques are known and used. The specific technique adopted depends on the properties of the food being preserved. For example, a traditional method for preserving rice is to allow it to dry naturally in the fields or on drying racks in barns for about two weeks. After this period of time, the native rice is threshed and then dried again by allowing it to sit on straw mats in the sun for about three days. Modern drying techniques make use of fans and heaters in controlled environments. Such methods avoid the uncertainties that arise from leaving crops in the field to dry under natural conditions. Controlled temperature air drying is especially popular for the preservation of grains such as maize, barley, and bulgur.
Vacuum drying is a form of preservation in which a food is placed in a large container from which air is removed. Water vapor pressure within the food is greater than that outside of it, and water evaporates more quickly from the food than in a normal atmosphere. Vacuum drying is biologically desirable since some enzymes that cause oxidation of foods become active during normal air drying. These enzymes do not appear to be as active under vacuum drying conditions, however. Two of the special advantages of vacuum drying are that the process is more efficient at removing water from a food product, and it takes place more quickly than air drying. In one study, for example, the drying time of a fish fillet was reduced from about 16 hours by air drying to six hours as a result of vacuum drying.
Coffee drinkers are familiar with the process of dehydration known as spray drying. In this process, a concentrated solution of coffee in water is sprayed though a disk with many small holes in it. The surface area of the original coffee grounds is increased many times, making dehydration of the dry product much more efficient. Freeze-drying is a method of preservation that makes use of the physical principle known as sublimation. Sublimation is the process by which a solid passes directly to the gaseous phase without first melting. Freeze-drying is a desirable way of preserving food because at low temperatures (commonly around 14°F to 3°F [0°C to 5°C]) chemical reactions take place very slowly and pathogens have difficulty surviving. The food to be preserved by this method is first frozen and then placed into a vacuum chamber. Water in the food first freezes and then sublimes, leaving a moisture content in the final product of as low as 0.5%.
The precise mechanism by which salting preserves food is not entirely understood. It is known that salt binds with water molecules and thus acts as a dehydrating agent in foods. A high level of salinity may also impair the conditions under which pathogens can survive. In any case, the value of adding salt to foods for preservation has been well known for centuries. Sugar appears to have effects similar to those of salt in preventing spoilage of food. The use of either compound (and of certain other natural materials) is known as curing. A desirable side effect of using salt or sugar as a food preservative is, of course, the pleasant flavor each compound adds to the final product.
Curing can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Meats can be submerged in a salt solution known as brine, for example, or the salt can be rubbed on the meat by hand. The injection of salt solutions into meats has also become popular. Food scientists have now learned that a number of factors relating to the food product and to the preservative conditions affect the efficiency of curing. Some of the food factors include the type of food being preserved, the fat content, and the size of treated pieces. Preservative factors include brine temperature and concentration, and the presence of impurities.
Curing is used with certain fruits and vegetables, such as cabbage (in the making of sauerkraut), cucumbers (in the making of pickles), and olives. It is probably most popular, however, in the preservation of meats and fish. Honey-cured hams, bacon, and corned beef ("corn" is a term for a form of salt crystals) are common examples.
Freezing is an effective form of food preservation because the pathogens that cause food spoilage are killed or do not grow very rapidly at reduced temperatures. The process is less effective in food preservation than are thermal techniques such as boiling because pathogens are more likely to be able to survive cold temperatures than hot temperatures. In fact, one of the problems surrounding the use of freezing as a method of food preservation is the danger that pathogens deactivated (but not killed) by the process will once again become active when the frozen food thaws.
A number of factors are involved in the selection of the best approach to the freezing of foods, including the temperature to be used, the rate at which freezing is to take place, and the actual method used to freeze the food. Because of differences in cellular composition, foods actually begin to freeze at different temperatures ranging from about 31°F (.6°C) for some kinds of fish to 19°F (°C) for some kinds of fruits.
The rate at which food is frozen is also a factor, primarily because of aesthetic reasons. The more slowly food is frozen, the larger the ice crystals that are formed. Large ice crystals have the tendency to cause rupture of cells and the destruction of texture in meats, fish, vegetables, and fruits. In order to deal with this problem, the technique of quick-freezing has been developed. In quick-freezing, a food is cooled to or below its freezing point as quickly as possible. The product thus obtained, when thawed, tends to have a firm, more natural texture than is the case with most slow-frozen foods.
About a half dozen methods for the freezing of foods have been developed. One, described as the plate, or contact, freezing technique, was invented by the American inventor Charles Birdseye in 1929. In this method, food to be frozen is placed on a refrigerated plate and cooled to a temperature less than its freezing point. Alternatively, the food may be placed between two parallel refrigerated plates and frozen. Another technique for freezing foods is by immersion in very cold liquids. At one time, sodium chloride brine solutions were widely used for this purpose. A 10% brine solution, for example, has a freezing point of about 21°F (°C), well within the desired freezing range for many foods. More recently, liquid nitrogen has been used for immersion freezing. The temperature of liquid nitrogen is about 20°F (95.5°C), so that foods immersed in this substance freeze very quickly.
As with most methods of food preservation, freezing works better with some foods than with others. Fish, meat, poultry, and citrus fruit juices (such as frozen orange juice concentrate) are among the foods most commonly preserved by this method.
Fermentation is a naturally occurring chemical reaction by which a natural food is converted into another form by pathogens. It is a process in which food spoils, but results in the formation of an edible product. Perhaps the best example of such a food is cheese. Fresh milk does not remain in edible condition for a very long period of time. Its pH is such that harmful pathogens begin to grow in it very rapidly. Early humans discovered, however, that the spoilage of milk can be controlled in such a way as to produce a new product, cheese.
Bread is another food product made by the process of fermentation. Flour, water, sugar, milk, and other raw materials are mixed together with yeasts and then baked. The addition of yeasts brings about the fermentation of sugars present in the mixture, resulting in the formation of a product that will remain edible much longer than will the original raw materials used in the bread-making process.
Heating food is an effective way of preserving it because the great majority of harmful pathogens are killed at temperatures close to the boiling point of water. In this respect, heating foods is a form of food preservation comparable to that of freezing but much superior to it in its effectiveness. A preliminary step in many other forms of food preservation, especially forms that make use of packaging, is to heat the foods to temperatures sufficiently high to destroy pathogens.
In many cases, foods are actually cooked prior to their being packaged and stored. In other cases, cooking is neither appropriate nor necessary. The most familiar example of the latter situation is pasteurization. During the 1860s, the French bacteriologist Louis Pasteur discovered that pathogens in foods could be destroyed by heating those foods to a certain minimum temperature. The process was particularly appealing for the preservation of milk since preserving milk by boiling is not a practical approach. Conventional methods of pasteurization called for the heating of milk to a temperature between 145 and 149°F (63 and 65°C) for a period of about 30 minutes, and then cooling it to room temperature. In a more recent revision of that process, milk can also be "flash-pasteurized" by raising its temperature to about 160°F (71°C) for a minimum of 15 seconds, with equally successful results. A process known as ultra-high-pasteurization uses even higher temperatures, of the order of 19466°F (9030°C), for periods of a second or more.
One of the most common methods for preserving foods today is to enclose them in a sterile container. The term "canning" refers to this method although the specific container can be glass, plastic, or some other material as well as a metal can, from which the procedure originally obtained its name. The basic principle behind canning is that a food is sterilized, usually by heating, and then placed within an air-tight container. In the absence of air, no new pathogens can gain access to the sterilized food. In most canning operations, the food to be packaged is first prepared in some wayleaned, peeled, sliced, chopped, or treated in some other waynd then placed directly into the container. The container is then placed in hot water or some other environment where its temperature is raised above the boiling point of water for some period of time. This heating process achieves two goals at once. First, it kills the vast majority of pathogens that may be present in the container. Second, it forces out most of the air above the food in the container.
After heating has been completed, the top of the container is sealed. In home canning procedures, one way of sealing the (usually glass) container is to place a layer of melted paraffin directly on top of the food. As the paraffin cools, it forms a tight solid seal on top of the food. Instead of or in addition to the paraffin seal, the container is also sealed with a metal screw top containing a rubber gasket. The first glass jar designed for this type of home canning operation, the Mason jar, was patented in 1858.
The commercial packaging of foods frequently makes use of tin, aluminum, or other kinds of metallic cans. The technology for this kind of canning was first developed in the mid-1800s, when individual workers hand-sealed cans after foods had been cooked within them. At this stage, a single worker could seldom produce more than 100 "canisters" (from which the word "can" later came) of food a day. With the development of far more efficient canning machines in the late nineteenth century, the mass production of canned foods became a reality.
As with home canning, the process of preserving foods in metal cans is simple in concept. The foods are prepared and the empty cans are sterilized. The prepared foods are then added to the sterile metal can, the filled can is heated to a sterilizing temperature, and the cans are then sealed by a machine. Modern machines are capable of moving a minimum of 1,000 cans per minute through the sealing operation.
The majority of food preservation operations used today also employ some kind of chemical additive to reduce spoilage. Of the many dozens of chemical additives available, all are designed either to kill or retard the growth of pathogens or to prevent or retard chemical reactions that result in the oxidation of foods. Some familiar examples of the former class of food additives are sodium benzoate and benzoic acid; calcium, sodium propionate, and propionic acid; calcium, potassium, sodium sorbate, and sorbic acid; and sodium and potassium sulfite. Examples of the latter class of additives include calcium, sodium ascorbate, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C); butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT); lecithin; and sodium and potassium sulfite and sulfur dioxide.
A special class of additives that reduce oxidation is known as the sequestrants. Sequestrants are compounds that "capture" metallic ions, such as those of copper, iron, and nickel, and remove them from contact with foods. The removal of these ions helps preserve foods because in their free state they increase the rate at which oxidation of foods takes place. Some examples of sequestrants used as food preservatives are ethylenediamine-tetraacetic acid (EDTA), citric acid, sorbitol, and tartaric acid.
The lethal effects of radiation on pathogens has been known for many years. Since the 1950s, research in the United States has been directed at the use of this technique for preserving certain kinds of food. The radiation used for food preservation is normally gamma radiation from radioactive isotopes or machine-generated x rays or electron beams. One of the first applications of radiation for food preservation was in the treatment of various kinds of herbs and spices, an application approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1983. In 1985, the FDA extended its approval to the use of radiation for the treatment of pork as a means of destroying the pathogens that cause trichinosis. Experts predict that the ease and efficiency of food preservation by means of radiation will develop considerably in the future. That future is somewhat clouded, however, by fears expressed by some scientists and members of the general public about the dangers that irradiated foods may have for humans. In addition to a generalized concern about the possibilities of being exposed to additional levels of radiation in irradiated foods (not a possibility), critics have raised questions about the creation of new and possibly harmful compounds in food that has been exposed to radiation.
See also Biotechnology; Botulism; Food safety; History of microbiology; History of public health; Salmonella food poisoning; Winemaking