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Lagerung im Kühlschrank
A journey through time to explore different methods of food preservation

From tried and tested to state of the art – mastering the art of food preservation

People have developed various methods to preserve their food throughout history: from heating to chemical substances and pressure treatment. Some of these old-established methods have existed since prehistoric times and have been responsible for curtailing diseases, others have had only a transitory effect. A journey through selected epochs.

Jagd in Steinzeit
Cave painting about a hunting scene © zatvorniknik - Fotolia.com

The ground under foot is soft; just need to be careful not to step on a branch. A majestic deer is standing on the meadow – only ten metres away. The first shot has to count. The animal gradually comes in the range of the arrow. A shot, a last bellow, silence. The deer is dead. The catch will last for several days, a great success.

Necessary preparations have already started in the cave to deal with such a catch. The hunter's family immediately begins to prepare the meat so it lasts for a longer period. The salt reserve is not big, but it is enough to salt the meat – in other words, to cure it. Other parts of the deer are hung over the fire and smoked.

By simple means: preservation from antiquity to the French revolution.

Curing and smoking were part of the established procedures to make food last longer even in early history. In ancient times, around 800 BC to 600 AD, chilling food was a common practice to avoid loss of nutrients. This practice was carried out in addition to existing methods.

New thoughts during the Napolean era. © Erica Guilane-Nachez - Fotolia.com

Using sugar, which was still not accessible to everyone, was an effective and popular method of preservation in the period that followed, the Middle Ages. Sugar extracts water from food, especially fruit, and the microorganisms so bacteria cannot survive. More and more people could use this preservative by the middle of the nineteenth century. However, sugar established itself as a preservative only for confectionery products like marmalade.

The impetus to undertake further research for ideal preservation was the malnutrition of the French army during military campaigns after the French Revolution in 1789. Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general, dictator, and emperor, offered a reward of 12,000 francs, equivalent today to approximately 80,000 euros, to anyone who could develop a method to extend the shelf life of food. The person to win the prize was not an acclaimed scientist, but a French confectioner.

From confectioner to inventor: tinned food celebrates a milestone

Day after day, Nicolas Francois Appert stands in his little confectionery and creates various delicacies. The smell of sweet chocolate cakes attracts many customers to his shop. It smells less inviting in Appert's storage room. The ingredients spoil all too soon here. Appert is not going to accept defeat. He opens up a test workshop and starts to experiment after work, late into the night.

He has a groundbreaking idea after numerous attempts. He begins to seal food in airtight glass bottles after heating it. This boiling results in sterilisation. A simple baker's invention is the origin of the tin.

Further success: chemistry, the Weck jar, and the refrigerator

The refrigerator was the next big milestone in preservation. © everettovrk - Fotolia.com

Despite this significant innovation, scientists continued to research intensively into the causes of spoilage in order to combat it. The results gave rise to the idea to chemically produce mould resistant substances. "Toxicological studies were virtually unknown at the onset of industrialisation," says Christian Niemeyer, head of the German Museum for Additives. Fluoride and chlorine went straight from the medicine cabinet into food. Basic concerns over health effects of chemical agents, especially salicylic acid, forced scientists to look for alternatives. The Weck jar, invented by Carl Weck, was one such invention.

Carl von Linde's invention, the refrigerator, was the next big milestone in preservation. The idea of chilling food was not new, the ability to keep it cool around the clock was. 70% Americans owned a refrigerator by the late 1930. The first refrigerators entered the German household only in the 1950s.

Recent trends: products without preservatives are gaining popularity

Freeze-drying, vacuum packaging, Tetra Pack, plastic wrap, and Tupperware complemented the other preservation methods from 1960 onwards. Even the method created by the French confectioner Appert underwent further development. During the process of preservation, jars were heated with the food thereby pasteurising it rather than sterilising it. This alternative to chemical preservation proved successful in the succeeding years. This resulted in a hype for products without preservatives. Frozen food also became popular. In contrast to tinned food, nutrients are retained in this type of preservation.

High pressure treatment, a modern method of preservation, has also been widely used. Pressure which is five to eight times higher than pressure at the deepest part of the ocean is exerted on organisms. This technology ensures week-long durability, even without additional cooling. Products preserved using pressure were first introduced in Japanese and US markets in the early 1990s. Food treated with high pressure such as fruit juices have been on sale in the European Union since 2001.

Food for astronauts: eating sensibly in space

Food for astronauts has to be light. © nikonomad - Fotolia.com

Space is the ultimate place to test how effective modern preservation methods are. The rocket soars through the atmosphere with lightning speed and leaves the Earth's orbit after a few minutes. The astronauts bodies float in the space station, as light as a feather. In addition to many scientific experiments, there is another challenge that astronauts face: hunger and thirst are less pronounced in zero-environment than on Earth. They also experience loss of taste in space. Astronauts eat 70% less in space according to NASA. All the same, they still need to consume nutrients to stay mentally and physically fit.

Tinned food for astronauts has to be light. It cost US $22,000 to transport one kilogram of tinned food to the international space state (ISS) according to German chef, Harald Wohlfahrt, who has developed food for astronauts. However, he has succeeded in making progress. He has developed lightweight, pressure resistant metal tins which are heated with contact plates just before mealtimes. Thanks to these weight-saving containers, astronauts can have decent food even in space: a Swabian potato soup, braised veal cheeks with wild mushrooms or plum compote in star anise spiced syrup.

From curing venison to metal tins for the space station: preservation has a long history - and it is far from over. Scientists continue to work on new, innovative methods to preserve food in the future.

Header photo: © everettovrk - Fotolia.com

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