I recently read an article in TIME Magazine while in a doctor’s waiting room. It was about the strides that scientists are taking in order to extend the shelf life of food, feeling that more sophisticated methods of food preservation are needed to feed the global population which is currently approaching 7 billion, and still growing.
Considering that I market a line of all natural cooking products which have NO preservatives, I read this article with great interest. I read about the new generation of food preservation technology. It likened this process to that which makes MREs (meals, ready to eat), the rations sent to military troops, and used in long term space missions, which have never been famous for tasting good.
After Hurricane Katrina, many gulf coast residents subsisted on MREs provided by the military. They feed victims from earthquakes, blizzards, and drought.
We are already seeing signs of this process in stores – tuna in vacuum sealed pouches is said to taste fresher than canned tuna and can last on the shelf (either in the store, or in your pantry) for 2-1/2 years. The most talked about “imperishable” food (if it really IS food) is Spam. Although not what you think of when you think about a fresh tasting meal, Spam is sold with an expiration date 2 years in the future, however research at Hormel says that a well-sealed case of Spam would remain edible for 12-15 years, if not longer. In their depicted timeline of food shelf life, Spam was at the ‘end’ of the list, with the caption “No everyday food lasts longer than this icon.” Yikes!
Interviewed in the article was Lauren Oleksyk, leader of the food processing, engineering, and technology team at the US Depatment of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate. She told how in 2002, she and her collegagues introduced an “indestructible” sandwich. It was a bread envelope, stuffed with pepperoni or barbequed chicken, designed to last three to five years without refrigeration at standard room temperature.
Making food with a long life span poses challenges such as controlling moisture, controlling atmosphere, and controlling micro-organisms (from bacteria to mold). The “indestructible” sandwich used glycerol and sorbitol in the filling to keep liquid/moisture from the meat from seeping into the bread. They also used fine, edible polymer films which are said to be undetectible in the mouth. The packaging had layers of heat resistant polypropylene and metal foil to keep oxygen out.
NASA has reported that it has come up with a bread pudding that can last for 4 years. At the Pentagon, there is a pound cake said to remain springy for up to 5 years. Scientists predict that as these foods become more mainstream, in the future we may only need to go to the grocery store once a month, and will rarely, if ever, have to toss food because it has gone bad. They hope that if fruit and vegetables can be better preserved, they will become less expensive. Oleksyk’s goal is to create meals that can last up to 10 years. She says, (and this one really scares me!) “They wouldn’t have any idea of how old it actually was.”
In the Journal of Food Science, they revealed a study conducted by a food scientist at Johnson Space Center. The report was based on a three year study of 13 foods including three bean salad, pork chops, a vegetable omelette, and tuna casserole. Once processed and packaged, the foods were stored at the Space Center and tasted on a regular basis over the next 3 years. They remained edible for a surprising length of time, although there was some visible aging such as darker colors and changing texture. In the tuna casserole, the pasta got soft, but the tuna held up. The agency calculated that grilled pork chops could remain edible nearly 7 years, and tuna & salmon for closer to 8 years.
John Floros, head of the food-science department at Penn State, says that we lose too much food to rot and decay, and that frozen and refrigerated sections in grocery stores are expensive to run and maintain, therefore, without good food preservation, at some point we could fall short of meeting the needs of a global population.
So, it will be interesting to see if consumers “bite” on this new technology. I for one, will stick to my natural, non GMO, non irradiated, non preserved food!