1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Food Preservation

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FOOD PRESERVATION. The preservation of food material beyond the short term during which it naturally keeps sound and eatable has engaged human thought from the earliest dawn of civilization. Necessity compelled man to store the plenitude of one season or place against the need of another. The hunter dried, smoked and salted meat and fish, pastoral man preserved milk in the form of cheese and butter, or fermented grape-juice into wine. With the separation of country from town, the development of manufacturing nation as distinct from agricultural and food-producing people, the spreading of civilized man from torrid to arctic zones, the needs of travellers on land and sea and of armies on the march, the problem of the prevention of the natural decomposition to which nearly all food substances are liable became increasingly urgent, and forms to-day, next to the production of food, the most important problem in connexion with the feeding and the trade of nations. As long as the reasons of decomposition were unknown, all attempts at preservation were necessarily empirical, and of the numberless processes which have during modern times been proposed and attempted comparatively few have stood the test of experience. In the light of modern knowledge, however, the guiding principles appear to be very simple.

Very few organic materials undergo decomposition, as it were, of their own accord. They may lose water by evaporation, and fatty substances may alter by the absorption of oxygen from the air. They are otherwise quite stable and unchangeable while not attacked and eaten up by living organisms, or while the life with which they may be endowed is in a state of suspense. An apple is alive and in breathing undergoes its ripening change; a grain of wheat is dormant and does not alter. A substance, in order to be a food material, must be decomposable under the attack of a living organism; the energy stored in it must be available to that stream of energy which we call life, whether the life be in the form of the human consumer or of any lower organism. All decomposition of food is due to the development within the food of living organisms. Under conditions under which living organisms cannot enter or cannot develop food keeps undecomposed for an indefinite length of time. The problem of food preservation resolves itself, therefore, into that of keeping out or killing off all living things that might feed upon and thus alter the food, and as these organisms mainly belong to the family of moulds, yeasts and bacteria, modern food preservation is strictly a subject for the bacteriologist.

The changes which food undergoes on keeping are easily intelligible when once their biological origin is recognized. Yeasts cause the decomposition of saccharine substances into alcohol and carbon dioxide, acetic and lactic ferments produce from sugar or from alcohol the organic acids causing the souring of food, moulds as a rule cause oxidation and complete destruction of organic matter, nitrogenous or saccharine, while most bacteria act mainly upon the nitrogenous constituents, producing albumoses and peptones and breaking up the complex albumenmolecule into numerous smaller molecules often allied to alkaloids, generally with the production of evil-smelling gases. These processes may go on simultaneously, but more frequently take place successively in the decomposition of food, one set of organisms taking up the work of destruction as the conditions become favourable to its development and unfavourable to its, predecessor. The organisms may come from the air, the soil or from animal sources. The air teems with organisms which settle and may develop when brought upon a favourable nidus; the organic matter of the soil largely consists of fungoid life; while the intestinal canal and other mucous membranes of all animals harbour bacteria, sarcinae and other organisms in countless millions. Whenever, therefore, food material is exposed to the air, or touched by the soil or by animals or man,. it becomes infected with living cells, which by their development lead to its decomposition and destruction.

Fungoid organisms may be killed by heat or by chemicals; or their development may be arrested by cold, removal of water,, or by the presence of agents inhibiting their growth though not destroying their life. All successful processes of food preservation depend upon one or other of these circumstances.

Preservation by Heat. - At the boiling-point of water all living cells perish, but some spores of bacteria may survive for about three hours. Few adult bacteria can live beyond 75° C. (167° F.) in the presence of water, though dry heat only kills with certainty at 140° C. (284° F.). Destruction of life takes place more rapidly in solutions showing an acid than a feebly alkaline reaction; hence acid fruit is more easily preserved than milk, which, when quite fresh, is alkaline. By cooking, therefore, food becomes temporarily sterile, until a fresh crop of organisms finds access from the air. By repeated cooking all food can be indefinitely preserved. One of the most important functions of cookery is sterilization. Civilized man unwittingly revolts against the consumption of non-sterile food, and the use of certain fungus-infected material is an inheritance from barbarous ages; few materials of animal origin are eaten raw, and in vegetables some sort of sterilizing process is attempted by washing (of salads) or removal of the outer skin (of fruits). All preparation of food for the table, cooking being the most important, tends towards preservation, but is effectual only for a few hours or days at most, unless special means are adopted to prevent reinfection. The housewife covering the jam with a thin paper soaked in brandy, or the potted meat with a thin layer of lard, attempts unconsciously to bar the road to bacteria and other minute organisms. To preserve food in a permanent manner and on a commercial scale it has to be cooked in a. receptacle which must be sufficiently strong for transport, cheap, light and unattacked by the material in contact with it. None of the receptacles at present in use quite fulfils the whole of these conditions: glass and china are heavy and fragile, and their carriage is expensive; tinned iron, so-called tin-plate, is rarely quite unaffected by food materials, but owing to its strength, tenacity and cheapness, it is used on an ever-increasing scale. The sheet iron, which formerly was made of soft wrought iron, now generally consists of steel containing but very little carbon; it is cleaned by immersion in acid and covered with a very thin layer of pure tin, all excess of tin being removed by hot rollers and brushes. The layer of tin, which formerly constituted from 3 to 53/4 of the total weight of the plate, has, owing to the increased price of tin and the improvement in machinery, gradually become so thin that its weight is only from I to 3%. Not rarely, therefore, the tin-surface is imperfect, perforated or pin-holed. Tin itself is slightly attacked by all acid juices of vegetable or animal substances. With the exception of milk, all human food is slightly acid, and consequently all food that has been preserved in tin canisters contains variable traces of dissolved tin. Happily, salts of tin have but little physiological action. Nevertheless, the employment of tinplate for very acid materials, like tomatoes, peaches, &c., is very objectionable.

The process of preservation in canisters is carried out as follows: - The canister, which has been made either by the use of solder or by folding machinery only, is packed with the material to be preserved, and a little water having been added to fill the interstices the lid is secured by soldering or folding, generally the former. Sterilization is effected by placing the tins in pressure chamhers, which are heated by steam to 120 C. or more. The tins are exposed to that temperature for such time as experience has shown to be necessary to heat the contents throughout to at least ioo C. The temperature is then allowed to fall slowly to below the boiling-point of water, when the tins can be taken out of the pressure chamber, or they are placed in pans filled with water or a solution of calcium chloride and are therein heated till thoroughly cooked. Sometimes a small aperture is pierced through the lid, to allow of the escape of the expanding air, such holes before cooling closed by means of a drop of solder. This process, which was originally introduced by Francois Appert early in the i 9th century, is employed on an enormous scale, especially in America. The use of lacquered tins, having the inner surface of the tin covered with a heat-resisting varnish, is gradually extending. Imperfect sterilization shows itself in many cases by gas development within the tin, which causes the ends to become convex and drummy. More frequently than not the contents of the larger tins, containing meat or other animal products, are not absolutely sterile, but the conditions are mostly such that the organisms which have survived the cooking process cannot develop. When they can develop without formation of gas dangerous products of decomposition may be produced without showing themselves to taste or smell. Numerous cases of so-called ptomaine poisoning have thus occurred; these are more frequently associated with preserved fish and lobster than with meats, although no class of preserved animal food is free from liability of ptomaine formation. The formation of poisonous substances has never been traced to preserved fruit or other material poor in nitrogen. The mode of preserving food in china or glass is quite similar, but the losses by breakage are not inconsiderable. Food which has been preserved in tins is sometimes transferred to glass and re-sterilized, the feeling against "tinned" food caused by the "Chicago scandals" not having entirely subsided. Were it not for the facts that sterilization is rarely quite perfect, and that the food attacks the tin, the contents of tin canisters ought to keep for an indefinite length of time. Under existing circumstances, however, there is a distinct limit to the age of soundness of canned food.

Preservation by Chemicals. - Salt is the oldest chemical preservative and, either alone or in conjunction with saltpetre and with wood-smoke, has been used for many centuries, mainly as a meat preservative. It is used either dry in layers strewn on the surface of the meat or fish to be preserved, or in the form of brine in which the meat is submerged or which is injected into the carcasses. The preserving power of salt is but moderate. It has the great advantage that in ordinary doses it is noninjurious, that an excess at once betrays itself in the taste, and that it can be readily removed by soaking in water. When aided by wood-smoke, which depends for its preservative power upon traces of creosote and formaldehyde, it is, however, quite efficient. The addition of saltpetre is principally for the purpose of giving to the meat a bright pink tint. The strongly saline taste of pickled meat or salted butter appears gradually to have become repugnant to a large part of mankind, and other preservatives have come into use, possessing greater bactericidal power and less taste. The serious objection attaching to them is discussed in the article Adulteration. At the present time the use of borax or boracic acid is almost universal in England. Meat which has been exposed to the vapours of formaldehyde, and has thus been superficially sterilized, is also coming into commerce in increasing quantities. Formaldehyde in itself is distinctly poisonous, and has the property of combining with albuminoids and rendering them completely insoluble in the digestive secretions. Salicylic and benzoic acids are not infrequently used to stop fermentation of saccharine beverages or deterioration of so-called "potted meats," which are supposed to last fresh and sweet on the consumer's table for a considerable length of time. Sulphurous acid and sulphites are chiefly used in the preservation of thin ales, wine and fruit, and sodium fluoride has been found in butter. The whole of these substances possess decided and injurious physiological properties. Alcohol now rarely forms a preservative of food material, its employment being confined to small fruit. The use of sugar as a preservative depends upon the fact that, although in a dilute solution it is highly prone to fermentation and other decomposition, it possesses bactericidal properties when in the form of a concentrated syrup. A sugar solution containing 3 o io of water or less does not undergo any biological change; in the presence of organic acids, like those contained in fruit, growth of organisms is inhibited when the percentage of water is somewhat greater. Upon this fact depends the use of sugar in the manufacture of jams, marmalades and jellies. Moulds may grow on the surface of such saccharine preparations, but the interior remains unaffected and unaltered.

Preservation by Drying. - Food materials in which the percentage of moisture is small (not exceeding about 8%) are but little liable to bacterial growths, at most to the attacks of innocent Penicillium. Nature preserves the germs in seeds and nuts, which are laden with otherwise decomposable food material, by the simple expedient of water removal. The life of cereal grains and many seeds appears to be unlimited. By the removal of water the Most perishable materials, like meat or eggs, can be rendered unchangeable, except so far as the inevitable oxidation of the fatty substances contained in them is concerned and which is indeendent of life-action. The drying of meat, upon which a generation ago inventors bestowed a great deal of attention, has become almost obsolete, excepting for comparatively small articles or animals, like ox tongues or tails and fish. It has been superseded even among less civilized communities by the spread of canned food. Fruit, however, is very largely preserved in t?e dried state. Grapes are sun-dried and thus form currants, raisins and sultanas, the last variety being often bleached by the addition of sulphites. Plums, apples and pears are artificially dried in ovens on wooden battens or on wire sieves; from the latter they are apt to become contaminated with notable ivantities of zinc. Excellent preparations of dried vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, onions, French beans and cabbages, are also manufactured.

The utilization of meat in the form of meat extract belongs to some extent to this class of preserved foods. Its origin is due to J. von Liebig and Max von Pettenkofer, and dates from the middle of the 19th century. The soluble material is extracted mainly from beef, in Australia to some extent from mutton, by means of warm water; the albumen is coagulated by heat and removed i and the broths thus obtained are evaporated in vacuo until the extract contains no more than about 20% of water. One pound of extract is obtained from about 25 lb of lean beef.

Preservation by Refrigeration. - At or below the freezing-point of water fungoid organisms are incapable of growth and multiplication. Although it has been asserted that many of them perish when kept for some time in the frozen condition, it is certain that the vast majority of bacteria and their germs remain merely dormant. Even so highly organized structures as cereal seeds do not suffer 'in vitality on being kept for a considerable length of time at the far lower temperature of liquid air. Biological change is, therefore, arrested at freezing-point, and as long as that temperature is maintained food material remains unaltered, except for physical changes depending upon the evaporation of water and of volatile flavouring matters, or chemical alterations due to xidation.

Refrigeration, therefore, affords the means of keeping for a reasonably 1 ng time, and without the addition of any preservative su stance, food in a raw condition. It is the only process of preservation which from a sanitary point of view is entirely unobjectionable as ordinarily and properly employed. Its introduction on a commercial scale has more powerfully affected the economic conditions of England and, to a less degree, of the United States than any other scientific advance since the establishment of railways and steamboats. Enormous quantities of frozen carcasses, butter, fruit, vegetables and fish are introduced in the fresh condition into Great Britain and stored until required. Extreme fluctuations of supply or of price have become almost impossible, and the abundance of Australian and New Zealand ranches, and of West Indian orchards, has been made readily accessible to the British consumer. For household purposes cooling in ice-chests or ice-chambers suffices to preserve food on a comparatively small scale. The ice used for the purpose comes, to a small extent, from natural sources, stored from the winter or imported from northern countries; a far larger quantity is artificially produced by the methods described in the article on Refrigerating, which also contains an account of the means by which low temperatures are produced for industrial purposes of importation and storage. Fleets of steamships fitted with refrigerating machinery and insulated cold-rooms are employed in carrying the food materials, which are deposited in cold-stores at docks, warehouses, markets and hotels. The first cargo of frozen meat was shipped in July 1873 from Melbourne, but arrived in October in an unsatisfactory state. In 1875-1876 sound frozen meat came from America. The first cargo of frozen meat was successfully brought to the United Kingdom in 1880 from Australia in the "Strathleven," fitted with a Bell-Coleman air machine. The temperature in the cold-storage rooms is generally kept near 34° F., whilst in the chilling chambers a somewhat lower, and in the freezing room or chambers a much lower temperature (between o° and 10° F.) is maintained. The carcasses to be frozen should be cooled slowly at first to ensure even freezing throughout and to prevent damage by the unequal expansion of the outer layer of ice. The carcasses when freezing must be hung separated from each other, but for storage or transportation they are packed tightly together. Fish such as salmon is washed, thoroughly cleansed, and frozen on trays. Butter should be cooled as rapidly as possible to about 10° F.; its composition as regards proportion of volatile fatty-acids, &c., remains absolutely unaltered for years. Cheese should only be cold-stored when nearly ripe and should not be frozen. Eggs must be carefully selected, each one being inspected by candle-light. They are placed in cases holding about three hundred, which are taken first to a room in which they are slowly cooled to about 33° F., and are then kept in store just below freezing-point. Particular attention must be paid to the relative humidity of the air in egg stores. Fruit should be quite fresh; grapes may be chilled to 26° F., while lemons cannot safely be kept at a lower temperature than 36°. The time during which soft fruit can be kept even in cold-store is limited, and does not exceed about six weeks.

In the early days of the chilled-meat trade considerable prejudice existed against stored meat. While in many cases the flavour of fresh meat is rather superior, the food value is in no way altered by cold-storage.[1]

Preservation by Pickling other than Salt. - For the preservation of vegetables, vinegar or other solution of acetic acid is used to a limited extent. Eggs are submerged in lime-water or a dilute solution of sodium silicate (soluble glass). During the storage of eggs the more aqueous white of egg yields by endosmosis a portion of its water to the more concentrated yolk, which thereby expands and renders its thin containing-membrane liable to rupture. Fish, such as sardines, sprats and salmon, is preserved by packing in olive or other oil.

The preservation of the most important dairy product, namely, milk, deserves a separate notice. It has already been stated that alkaline liquids, like milk, are more difficult to sterilize by heat than acid materials. In consequence of the alteration in flavour which milk undergoes by long continued boiling, and of the fact that milk forms perhaps the best medium for the growth and propagation of bacterial organisms, there is exceptional difficulty in its sterilization. As secreted by a healthy cow it is a perfectly sterile fluid, and, as shown by Sir J. Lister, when drawn under aseptic conditions and kept under such, it remains definitely fresh and sweet. Bacterial and other pollution at the time of milking arises from the animal, the stable, the milker and the vessels. In animals suffering from tuberculosis and other bacterial affections the milk may be infected within the udder. Milk as it reaches the consumer rarely contains less than 50,000 bacteria and often many millions per cubic centimetre. In fresh country cream ioo millions per cubic centimetre are not unusual. These bacteria are of many kinds, some of them spore-bearing. The spores are more difficult to kill than the adult organism. The first step towards preservation is the removal of the dirt unavoidably present, to the particles of which a considerable proportion of the bacteria adhere. Filtration through cloths or, better, the passing of the milk through centrifugals effects that removal. Subsequent treatment is preferably preceded by a breaking-up of the larger fat-globules by the projection of a jet of the milk under high pressures against a steel or agate plate, a process known as homogenizing. From homogenized milk the cream separates slowly, and does not form the coherent layer thrown up by ordinary milk. Heating is then effected either after bottling or by passing the milk continuously through pipes in which it is heated to from 160° to 170° F. By a repetition of the heating process on two or more succeeding days, complete sterilization may be effected, although a single treatment is sufficient to render the milk stable for a few days. Many forms of pasteurizing apparatus for milk are in use. Since the general introduction of pasteurization of the skim-milk used in Denmark for the feeding of calves and pigs, tuberculosis in these animals has practically disappeared. On the continent of Europe the use of sterilized milk is now very general. In England it has found little favour in households, but is making rapid progress on board ship.

Milk which has been condensed has for many years found a most extensive sale. The first efforts to condense and thus preserve milk date from 1835, when an English patent was granted to Newton. In 1849 C. N. Horsford prepared condensed milk with the addition of lactose. Commercially successful milk condensation began in 1856. The milk is heated to about 180 F. and filled into large copper vacuum pans, after having been mixed with from 10 to 12 parts of sugar per ioo parts of milk. Evaporation takes place in the pans at about 122° F., and is carried on till the milk is boiled down to such concentration that ioo parts of the condensed milk, including the sugar, contain the solids of 300 parts of milk. Sweetened condensed milk, although rarely quite sterile, keeps indefinitely, and is invariably brought into commerce in tin canisters. The preparation of sweetened condensed milk forms one of the most important branches of manufacture in Switzerland and is steadily increasing in England. Although milk can quite well be preserved in the form of condensed unsweetened milk, which dietetically possesses immense advantages over the sweetened milk in which the balance between carbohydrates and albuminoids is very unfavourable, such unsweetened milk has found little or no favour. Milk powder is manufactured under various patents, the most successful of which depends upon the addition of sodium bicarbonate and the subsequent rapid evaporation of the milk on steam-heated revolving iron cylinders. Milk powder made from skim-milk keeps well for considerable periods, but full-cream milk develops rancid or tallowy flavours by the oxidation of the finely divided butter-fat. It is largely employed in the preparation of so-called milk chocolates. (O. H.*)

  1. Per contra, see the article by Mary E. Pennington in the Yearbook for 1907 (1908) of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, pp. 197-206, with illustrations of chickens kept in cold storage for two and three years. The results there shown cast considerable doubt on the efficiency of even refrigeration so far as an "indefinite" period is concerned; and it is suggested that the consumption of frozen meat may really account for various modern diseases.