Processed foods and supermarket culture
Most of us in the West are familiar with a world full of supermarkets, hot dog stands, pizza parlours and coffee shops. Chemicals can magic-up the flavours of our favourite fruits; vegetables appear to grow in polystyrene trays and materialize endlessly on crammed shelves. Mushrooms are made of marshmallow, meat is flat and round and comes wrapped in a sauce-filled bun, stamped with a golden 'M'. We have entered an age of mass production and commercial farming, of obesity and anorexia. Food is tied up with everything from our impressions of our own bodies to our nation's economy.
Scientific advances in the world of food continued to leap forward throughout the 20th century. It was only in the century's first decade that scientists discovered the existence of vitamins. In the 1890s Dutch scientists investigated an illness called beri-beri that had spread widely in the East Indies. They found that it was caused by a new type of polished white rice that was the staple diet of the population. When sufferers were fed the bran that had been removed from the rice in the polishing process, they quickly recovered. This discovery led to the recognition that foods contain different vitamins, and that a balance of these vitamins was essential for a healthy diet.
At the beginning of the century the English population ate very poorly. In 1917, when 2,500,000 men from across the social spectrum were given medical examinations, over forty per cent of them were found to be unfit for military service - mainly due to malnourishment. This led the government to invest time and money into dietary research and, over time, awareness of healthy eating has spread.
Ironically, WWII was a period of relatively healthy eating. The seas around the British Isles were dangerous and, as a result, imported food was highly restricted. The government instituted a system of food rationing, and the Ministry of Food dispensed information and advice about subjects such as growing your own produce, and eating a healthy diet. Slogans like 'Digging for Victory' and 'Make Do and Mend' appeared on posters all over the country, and became watch words of the nation's war effort.
Between the two world wars, in the 1920s and 30s, many people experienced a major shift in taste towards 'modern' living. The sophistication of fashion seen in dress, architecture and furntiture, was also reflected in the world of drinking and dining. For the wealthy, eating at restaurants and sipping cocktails increasingly became a essential part of modish life.
New technologies were used to preserve foods, such as canning, freeze-drying and freezing. But food technologists had to find ways to prevent foods from being altered and damaged by these processes. Various chemicals were found to be highly effective in, for instance, enhancing flavours, preventing coagulation or preserving bright colours. It became a century of tailored food - emulsified, homogenised, low in fat, high in fat, disco orange, fizzy, fast. Since the 1960s scientists have discovered that many chemicals are harmful, and some have been banned. A burning issue today is whether genetically modified food can hail an agricultural revolution, or whether it also may pose dangers.
Aeroplanes have increased imports and exports over the world. Today we can munch strawberries in mid winter, and peel satsumas in the height of summer. We can sip coffee from Latin America, Africa or Asia. We can chew New York bagels, savour Indian pickle, and gorge on Chinese dumplings. The culinary world is involved in a hugely complex system of exchange, and, whilst this might satisfy our appetites, there is much concern about the environmental consequences of so much air and sea traffic.