In On the Shelf Quentin Cooper reveals how the food industry is using new techniques to increase the shelf life of some of our most popular meals.
Food preservation is one of our oldest technologies. Drying, salting and freezing have been with us for millennia. Canning technology has hundreds of years of history behind it - distinguished scientists at the Royal Society in London were fed canned peas in a 17th century demonstration of the method. But all of these traditional methods are being updated and new ones invented in the battle to keep food for longer without altering its taste or texture. Lasers, ultra-violet light, high pressure and electrical resistance are all being explored as new methods of keeping food fresh. They have the potential to replace the chemical preservatives that consumers are wary of but they are expensive and can be unpopular - as the well publicised protests over irradiated food have proved.
Keeping food for long periods of time is dangerous. A bacterium that feeds on decaying food produces the most dangerous toxin known to man. Food poisoning is on the increase and micro-organisms are the first consideration when preservation technologies are developed. Humans might have evolved instinctive recognition mechanisms for spotting dangerously old food - our preference for crunchiness over sliminess for example. But if food is to be kept longer do we need packaging that will tell us accurately when the bugs have invaded it?
Astronauts, soldiers and submariners are the first to benefit from preservation technologies and their needs drive much of the research. NASA is depending on breakthroughs in food storage for the success of its manned flights to Mars and they are funding researchers working in food storage science around the world. But who else benefits from better storage methods - does the consumer or the food industry have most to gain from longer shelf lives?