Food Research Before The Term Food Science Arose

Food science as a distinct discipline is not quite a century old, but aspects of it have existed for centuries. Appert's development in 1810 of the process of canning (1) was an epochal event. The process wasn't called canning then, and Appert himself did not really know the principle upon which his process depended, but canning has had a major impact on food preservation ever since its development. It was the first of the purposely invented processes. Other methods developed earlier, such as drying and fermentation, go back to antiquity and were a result of the evolution of procedures over centuries rather than the purposeful application of the scientific method. Pasteur's study on the spoilage of wine and his description in 1864 (2,3) of how to avoid such spoilage persists not only because of the scientific importance of his findings but also because the term, pasteurization, is so much a part of our vocabulary. There were other early studies on food spoilage. In 1897 Prescott and Underwood published a seminal study of the spoilage of canned clams and lobsters (4). There was also a 1898 paper of theirs that dealt with the spoilage of canned corn. Russell (5) carried out what is now believed to be the first scientific work on spoilage of canned foods. He studied the amount of heat needed to preserve canned peas. His study, published in 1895, was little noticed for some time because it was buried in a report of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station (5).

A study initiated in 1920 that led to a truly scientific breakthrough was that of the National Canners Association (NCA; now called the National Food Processors Association). The NCA study (6) was the first to result in sound mathematical expressions for the amount of thermal energy needed to destroy microbial spores, the amount of heat put into a can and removed from it during heating and cooling, and a means of calculating the least amount of heat needed to destroy some specified number of spores in the can. Actually, there is no such thing as attaining a complete kill. One has to content oneself with the probability of there being one surviving spore. The usual level specified is 12D, or the probability of one container in 100 billion containing a viable spore.

The NCA study is a good illustration of fundamental scientific knowledge being discovered as an outgrowth of an investigation carried on for a very practical reason: to avert food spoilage and the risk of a Clostridium botulinum spore being able to grow out later and cause a very serious form of food intoxication (poisoning). Throughout the food field, the pharmaceutical industry, and others where sterility must be attained, the NCA study is the source of the knowledge needed.

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