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New federal regulations have prompted the biggest overhaul in the food industry in 70 years. But many of the safety and dietary concerns consumers are grappling with today have deep roots. A century ago, the food industry struggled with foodborne outbreaks even as canning and packaging took off. A few decades later, soda’s creep into the American diet caused public outcry over the impact on the health –- and weight –- of the country’s youth. We look back at how food processors have influenced our palates and our preference for what we eat, and find out how the industry is changing to meet modern taste and dietary demands.
- Gabriella Petrick Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, George Mason University; Author, "Industrializing Taste: Food Processing and the Transformation of the American Diet, 1900-1965"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDo you ever wonder why you like the foods you do? For instance, when you're at a salad bar why do you choose the mixed greens over the iceberg lettuce? Or for the sushi lovers out there, why do some of you like the rolls but not the nori that they're wrapped in? Thought we may not think about it there are many influences and a lot of history between why we eat what we eat. And the food industry has played a crucial role in shaping the American palette.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEven as the industry undergoes rapid change to meet modern safety, diet and health demands, much of what it's grappling with today has roots that go back a century or more. And those roots have a lot to do with why we crave high-salt, high-sugar foods. So how has the food industry shaped our palettes and our foot preferences?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur guest today has made answering these questions the thrust of her academic work. She joins us in studio. Gabriella Petrick is a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. She's also author of the upcoming books "Industrializing Taste: Food Processing and the Transformation of the American Diet, 1900-1965" and the book "Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter: Taste in History." Gabriella Petrick, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. GABRIELLA PETRICKThank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
NNAMDISo we're excited to have you. You've had a kind of peripatetic academic career with degrees from the Culinary Institute of America, Carnegie Melon and Cornell. You've also spent time in California's wine country working on food and wine pairings. At one point you wanted to be a chef. Tell us a little bit about the path that led you to George Mason.
PETRICKWell, to be sure, it certainly wasn't a straight path.
PETRICKAnd, you know, I grew up in the 1970s and '80s with the advent of the celebrity chef. Wolfgang Puck was out there. And I grew up in a family where food was tremendously important. My father had a large garden growing up so I spend a lot of time weeding and picking fresh greens. And I can talk about the hatred of salad I had as a small child, but I've come to love. And it was very important to us culturally coming from Carpatho-Rusyn which is a very small Slavic group that runs through the mountains from Poland into Slovakia. But my family was from Slovakia.
PETRICKAnd so in sort of being Carpatho-Rusyn and being Byzantine Catholic -- being raised Byzantine Catholic, food was incorporated into everything we did every day. And my mom was a great cook. We always had dinner together. The children, boys, girls, we all were involved in cooking. And I think food just was the center of my family. And I thought I wanted to be a big chef. I wanted to be one of those celebrity chefs and thought that that would be an easy straight path.
PETRICKAnd after going to college it was a dream I still had. And so working and working through that led me to culinary school. And then I realized, you know what, this is not what I want to do. And working with Madeleine Kamman at Beringer Vineyards really changed my life and set a direction that led me down this path of food history, her book "Savoie," which is a wonderful, wonderful read. But she incorporated geography and history and culture. And that's when I knew that's exactly what I wanted to do. And then just had to figure out how to find a graduate program that would be interesting food.
PETRICKAnd so I'd been a lot of different places, but I think working with my hands and working in restaurants and working at Cornell and thinking with a lot of really smart people about the inner sections of taste and what we like really influenced my research in the way I think about what it is we eat and why we make choices that we do.
NNAMDIAnd that's the path that she chose to turn her attention to the industrialization of food. It's my understanding that you credit Heinz Ketchup for spurring your interest in writing a book about the industrialization of taste in America. Tell us about what you observed with your friends in England and Australia, not to mention the people you grew up with in Pittsburgh.
PETRICKRight. You know, so I grew up in Latrobe, Pa. and so Heinz was always a big name in the area, from Heinz Hall to Senator Heinz. And the Heinz factory is a really gorgeous building. It's something that you can't miss on the north side. And Heinz was always in our household. Ketchup -- it defined what ketchup was for us. And being in Pittsburgh, of course you did it but you never bought Hunts. God forbid my mother ever bought Hunts Ketchup. There would...
NNAMDIThis is Heinz country, baby.
PETRICKWell, there would be rebellion. And the reality is they do really taste different. And it's the process that Heinz used to cook the tomatoes that really made a thicker, deeper-tasting ketchup than many of the other processors had used. And so there is actually some science about why we might prefer Heinz to other brands that are out there.
PETRICKAnd so, you know, it was really weird. I spend a year in London while I was in college and then I spent a year teaching in Australia. And I was just amazed and struck that Heinz was still everywhere. I'm like, well why would you guys like something from where I grew up in Pittsburgh, right? It's just -- it was anathema to me. But there are these long traditions and sort of Heinz -- that Heinz broke into Great Britain rather than Germany. I always find kind of fascinating that that British sort of northern European taste and flavors are what were commercialized first in the United States.
PETRICKAnd, you know -- but the other fascinating part about this is that ketchup tastes different in different places, so it tastes more barbecuey in Australia. It tastes sweeter in the U.S. It's a little more tomatoey, less sweet in Great Britain. So, you know, even as we travel around and may have some of the same brands, the flavors aren't the same because the food processors really recognize that there's a difference about what people want and what they accept. And what are the sort of notes -- the taste notes that different cultures have and desire.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation on food industrialization and how technology shaped the Western palette. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you feel like some of the foods you eat have changed in flavor over the years? Which ones, 800-433-8850? Or do you think processing has improved the flavor of some of the foods we eat? You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIGabriella Petrick, your upcoming book focuses on how food processing transformed the American diet during most of the 20th century. But the conversation about the food industry's power over our palettes and especially our children's palettes rages on as obesity skyrockets in this country. Can you give us some context on how we developed our taste for highly processed sweet and salty foods?
PETRICKIt's a really, really complicated relationship that really goes back to the very beginnings of the industry in the mid to the late 19th century. One of the things early processors -- and when I talk about early processors, particularly in 19th century, it's largely about canning and the development of canning. And one of the things that processors into the turn of the 20th century had really understood is that processing degrades the product. No one would ever think that a fresh pea and a canned pea tastes anything like each other.
PETRICKAnd so they developed ways by like adding salt into the canned peas which improved the flavor. Also using different types and varieties of peas. One of the things we do know, as freezing came on in the 1930s, you needed a different variety of pea. A frozen pea can't be the same type of pea of a canned pea because they don't taste very good and they don't taste like -- you know, if you used the starchier canned pea in the frozen, no one would want to eat it because it would taste like cow food, right? it just becomes completely unpalatable.
PETRICKSo that process of making things more refined degrades the product and then food processors added other things into it to help stabilize it. So depending what the products are you often get this tension between the amount of sweetness and saltiness. So if I make something too salty, if I add a bit of sugar to it, like you do -- like you add a touch of salt in a cake -- when you're making a cake you add a touch of salt to temper that sweetness. And so as we move to more and more processed foods, sort of that read-to-eat meal, the frozen dinners, processors had to add both salt and sugar into their products to make them palatable to us at all.
PETRICKAnd so particularly since about the late 1940s to today, that relationship between the amount of salt and sugar -- and all different kinds of sugars, dextrose, sucrose, fructose, whatever kind of sugars has become much more exasperated. And so we've kind of, I think, come to really like this dichotomy of salt and sweet that's often hidden. So, you know, when nutritionists or doctors talk about hidden sodium, this is what they're talking about -- and hidden sugar. We don't even know it. We don't even perceive it. But without it we wouldn't eat these products in the first place.
NNAMDIHow did our recognition of the development of the teenage palette contribute to all of this?
PETRICKWell, you know, this is something good that I've been thinking about a lot. And so in the United States we've had soda pop for a really long time. In the 19 teens and 20's you could go down to your local drugstore and get a soda. And we didn't drink very much of it. And we could bottle soda really pretty easily in the 1920s and '30s and distribute it nationwide. And yet we -- per capita we really didn't drink very much soda at all. But it's in that post-war generation after World War II when we have the baby boom generation. And at a cultural moment when teenagers are invented. We didn't have teenagers before 1946, the term. You know, we had adolescents but the term wasn't coined.
PETRICKAnd then you have them as a group, as a cohort being a very large population with disposable income. These are working teenagers who have discretionary income. And at the same time you have a worry by parents about their children drinking too much alcohol. And so soda pop becomes this indulgence. It becomes a buffer so that your child doesn't start drinking alcohol, become a juvenile delinquent and go down...
NNAMDIOkay. But that's understandable. But when did drinking at soda at dinnertime become acceptable?
PETRICKThat's a tricky question. My sense is it becomes a lot more acceptable as the baby boom generation ages. And so it becomes -- people who had grown up on soda pop where it becomes much more regularized, then move it into the adult arena. And then children learn these behaviors through their parents. And my sense is it has a lot to do with the 2-liter bottle, the pet bottle getting much, much less expensive, as well as just it becoming a much more regular part based on a generation's earlier eating patterns.
NNAMDIWe're now starting to see a decrease in soda consumption with beverages like bottled water, some flavored, and juice taking over as more, well, healthful options, if you will. Does this mark another shift in taste?
PETRICKYou know, I really think we're moving in a slightly different direction. Part of it has to do with an awareness about eating too much sugar. And, you know, soda pop has been largely tarred in the public, in the media, not saying I think soda's great. It's something to be had in moderation like a candy bar. But it's -- the idea that it is no longer healthy I think is having a cultural shift. And that the realization that just drinking plain water is just much more healthy for us, and drinking some juice. Some juices, one can argue whether that's healthy or not but certainly preferable than drinking a 16 ounce soda pop.
NNAMDIThe food industry maintains that it only tries to influence brand preference through advertising but we often hear talk about the so called addictive ingredients food processors include to change our taste for things. Does scientific research back this up?
PETRICKYou know, it's really something that's quite controversial. It's incredibly difficult to know. Humans have been eating sugar for a long time but not in the quantities that we do now. You know, I'm not a nutritionist. I'm also not a doctor but I don't think it's necessarily addictive. But certainly caffeine is addictive. So if you're drinking soda with caffeine in it and you happen to drink the sugar it's definitely addictive.
PETRICKBut I think there's a greater awareness about the dangers associated with it. And it's -- you know, to be honest, it's not something that's healthy. It's not something that we as a species have been drinking for a long time. So while I don't think it's actually necessarily physically addictive, I think there are cultural aspects to it. And a cultural addiction in some ways is no different than a physical addiction. If sort of a culture says this is bad and we're going to try to tamp it down, which is something we've been doing in the last certainly five years, but probably ten years of getting away from the soda. And that conversation about it relating it to addiction I think, you know, can have some positive good of reducing the amounts that we're drinking.
NNAMDIHere is Sydney in Adelphi, Md. Sydney, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SYDNEYYeah, this is wonderful to hear this topic today because my family and I were just in New York City over the weekend. And we went to American Museum of Natural History and they have an amazing exhibit there called Global Kitchen, Taste, Culture, and Nature, and it is a very comprehensive exhibit about, you know, where our food originally came from, how things like corn were originally discovered to be cultivated.
SYDNEYIt looks at different tastes of food across cultures. It looks at the issues of hunger and obesity around the world. It's just a wonderful, wonderful exhibit, and I would encourage anyone who lives in New York or is going to visit there, to go to that exhibit, and if you can't, they have also a huge amount of information on their website just addressing a lot of these issues and more, and I just wanted to let listeners know about it.
NNAMDISydney, thank you very much for your call. Since Sydney mentioned global cuisines, so to speak, variety seems to be the spice of life in grocery stores these days. We have Latin, Thai, and a host of other ethnic influences on those shelves in the grocery store, but are we really getting a permanent taste for these new foods in this country, or are we really unadventurous eaters?
PETRICKYou know, I honestly believe we're becoming culturally much, much, much more adventuresome, and I think a lot of that has to do with a lot more travel. Travel is a lot easier. People are exposed to all different types of people and, you know, since the 1970s, our immigration patterns have changed, and so there are different types of enclaves. You know, if I think about that in the D.C. area, I think about Eden Center, and sort of, you know, and if you're on the west coast, there are particular communities, and there's much more mixing in a lot of ways that are introducing new tastes that have never been experienced before.
PETRICKIf we think back to, you know, what, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt served to the King of England, you know, hot dogs and something very white and not particularly spicy, that's sort of what we think about is the American diet, but immigrants in the United States have largely shifted from Italian to early Chinese in the 19th and early 20th century. Those have been integrated into what we think about as they're different, but they're as American as any other thing that we might be eating.
NNAMDIHow can we relate what you just said to a statement that you cited in a previous paper by Edwin T. Gibson, the president of Birds Eye Frozen Foods from 1932 to 1951, when he said you can have exotic food products, I guess like some of the things we were just describing, and people will buy them occasionally, but they won't eat them regularly.
PETRICKWell, and it's really interesting that you bring that quote up, because one of the things he was talking about later on in that oral history, he talks about how people -- when they get scared or they get into -- nervous about things, that they'll fall back on their ethnic cuisines. And so you have that idea of comfort food coming out of Gibson's mouth in the 1940s and 1950s, but it's sort of falling back on, you know, sort of my Carpatho-Rusyn roots, or the foods that I love that other people would think was disgusting and no one should ever eat them, but they're the things that I crave at particular moments.
PETRICKAnd so I think that that -- there's an intersection between them, and I think you bring an interesting point of the industry itself is that there are always these compromises, and how do you choose what to make? But if we go on the grocery shelves and you look around, you know, it used to be in the '70s and '80s it would be La Choy would be your Chinese food in some way.
PETRICKNow, you go in there are seven kinds of fish sauce and three kinds of soy sauce, and all these different types of Mexican, you know, they may be sort of conventional or not authentic, but the wider variety of -- I can find masa in my grocery store which is something you couldn't even do, you know, eight or 10 years ago.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Gabriella Petrick. She's a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. It's Food Wednesday. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you become a more adventurous eater over time? Send us an email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll circle around to the safety of industrialized food. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIA Food Wednesday conversation with Gabriella Petrick. She's a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. Also author of the upcoming books "Industrializing Taste: Food Processing and the Transformation of the American Diet, 1900 - 1965," and the book "Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter: Taste in History." Call us at 800-433-8850. Have you revisited food you loved as a kid or as a teen, and then found them gross when you are an adult? 800-433-8850, but let's go first to Noel in Minersville, Md. Noel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NOELHi. Thank you, Kojo. Actually, I think it was interesting that you were just speaking about the greater diversity in the American diet and being more adventurous. I've recently found out that I have become allergic to an increasing number of things. I had no allergies as a child, and found out now that I'm allergic to soy, peanuts, nuts, peas, among other things. In particular, the soy allergy has been troublesome because it's apparently in everything, and I know that people who have glucose intolerance and other intolerances have, you know, kind of quote the same thing, but actually our food seems to be becoming more homogenous instead of diverse.
NNAMDICare to comment on that Gabriella Petrick?
PETRICKYou know, it's really interesting, because it depends on what types of food you're eating. So if you're the processed foods, you couldn't be more right. I mean, the soy is -- in particular, it's lecithin, which is an emulsifier, so it makes our yogurt creamy, and it's found in almost any processed food you can find. And so for people with food allergies, it really is an incredibly difficult path to navigate to make sure that you're not getting these foods, and a lot of times, these things are hidden pretty deeply.
PETRICKYou've got to do a lot of research, and you have to understand all the different ways something like soy or wheat or various corn starches shows up, and it's just, you know, I feel very badly about that for people, and it's just really, really hard to do.
NNAMDINoel, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. We're now seeing the biggest overhaul of the food industry in decades with the 2011 Food Safety Act, and the Food and Drug Administration has finally proposed sweeping new rules this month to basically turn itself into an agency that not only investigates food-borne outbreaks, but actually prevents contamination. Gabriella, food-borne illnesses are nothing new though, so I wonder if you can give us some perspective on how we came to trust the safety of mass produced foods that we eat today.
PETRICKA lot of that is, you know, when we think about it, the first sort of sets of food-borne illnesses that were really at a national level go back to canning and early canning, and sort of that process of industrializing and putting more things within cans, oddly enough created a set of -- created an environment in which things like botulism or anaerobic bacteria could breed, and we created a system in which we created a hazard.
PETRICKAnd it took about 20 to 30 years into the 1920s and '30s to figure out what's going on in the first place, because you have to remember that bacteriology didn't exist at this point, so a lot of this stuff is done by rule of thumb and, you know, you look at a can. They literally tested it -- if you've ever heard of a sound can, they actually used to rap a can to hear. If it was hollow, you knew there was something wrong going on. If it had sort of a nice thud to it, you knew it was relatively safe, or at least you thought.
PETRICKAnd so there's been this constant iteration between food producers, consumers worried about what they're eating. Our whole worry today is nothing today. We worried about this just as much in the 1870s and 1880s, and federal regulation, and it took a really long time. A long of industrial producers wanted guidance, and well, that's what we hear today is with the new FDA rules, producers are kind of happy because they have some guidance to know what they're supposed to do. So they're not sort of flying in the dark.
PETRICKAnd yet at the same time, like in the early 20th century -- at the turn of the 20th century, and today, there is this tension about how do we make money at it from a producer perspective, so that they're both protective, but they're not going to go under. And then the consumers are, well, what will we eat? Are our fears irrational? Sometime the answer is yes, that they are. But at the same time, one does worry about things that we can't see.
NNAMDIWell, for instance, many of the food-borne outbreaks we've had in recent years were from fruits and vegetables that should be fresh like spinach, cantaloupe, lettuce. Tell us a little bit about the historical learning curve that we've had to go through in packaging and handling that led to some of the new federal regulations we have today.
PETRICKYou know, this is the irony of it. We're supposed to eat a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables because they're good for us and they're healthy, and yet the system that we've created that mass produces fresh fruits and vegetables, and which the FDA is currently addressing, has some inherent flaws in it. Well, what do you do if your workers don't wash their hands? What do you do if your farm is too close to a feed lot, in which case you can get animal contamination, human contamination.
PETRICKA number of these things are relatively new because our farming spaces have become more compact. As farms have gotten bigger and bigger, they're butting up against wild animals, wilderness centers where you can get contamination as well as other industrial processors. You know, some of these things go back. People worried about these long before, you know, the 1990s and 2000s, but because of the shift and the larger producers taking over a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable production, they become a lot, lot, lot more dangerous.
NNAMDIOnto Daniel in Brunswick, Md. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELGood afternoon. Nice to talk to you. I have a question about social class and taste and ultimately industrial food as well. There's always been an aspirational quality to what people choose to eat and a negative quality. I cringed at the idea of serving hotdogs to the King of England. I wonder how industrial food processors have tied into the sort of aspirational qualities of class and shaping our desire for certain types of foods over other foods, and I'll hang up and listen off the air. Thank you.
PETRICKThat's a really wonderful question, and, you know, it's really interesting is when new foods come on the market, they tend to actually be geared towards wealthier Americans. If we think about canned peas or Heinz ketchup, Heinz never imagined that working-class people were going to put ketchup on French fries. It was much more about that middle- and upper-middle-class housewife who just doesn't have the time. She's losing servants.
PETRICKBut even today if we think about the products that are created at spaces like Whole Foods or other places, they're for the much more affluent. But if we look at something like iceberg lettuce, that originally was quite expensive, as it became much more ubiquitous in the 1930s and 1940s, and as more Americans could afford to actually have something quite nutritious, I mean, iceberg one can debate, but have fresh salad year round, it became -- it started to become derided by the elites, and this is a pattern we see over and over and over again, whether it's frozen peas, canned vegetables, or even something like iceberg lettuce. So there is (unintelligible)
NNAMDIAt which you've spent a lot of time looking, I should add, iceberg lettuce.
PETRICKIndeed I have.
NNAMDIAs our appetite for new foods grows, new words are entering the vernacular to describe how they taste. So we now have sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. What is umami?
PETRICKUmami is what I'll put in quotes as a "new taste." And it is something that has evolved in our taste lexicon, starting pretty much in the United States in the 1990s. And it's hard to say what it is, because it doesn't -- you can't taste it by itself. It's one of those things that has to be combined with something else. If I taste some sugar, I taste sweet. If I taste some salt, I taste something that's salty. If I drink quinine, I have that bitterness, or tea -- bitter tea.
PETRICKBut umami is something that gets combined with proteins that gives us an unctuousness. It gives us that more flavor. And so when we think about what umami tastes like, we think about things like fish sauce, things like tomato paste, things like parmesan-reggiano. And it's this extra -- extra flavor.
NNAMDIWell, the nori in which my sushi is wrapped, would that have an umami taste?
PETRICKIt does have a slight umami taste. It has -- there are sort of two components to umami. One is glutamic acid which we think about as monosodium glutamate and the other is ribonucleic acid which is going to be in your nori. So combining fish and seaweed, which is a very Japanese and very east Asian set of flavors, those are the things that we think about when we think about umami. Fish sauce, soy sauce.
NNAMDIGood. Because I don't want to be one taste behind. You call taste the Rodney Dangerfield of the senses. Why is that?
PETRICKLargely because when scientists are studying who we are as human beings, taste has been neglected, and it's only in the 1990s with a couple scientists who have started to study taste. And because vision and smell and touch and hearing, and sort of vision and hearing are the kings of the senses, people don't think taste is important, and this goes back to Aristotle. Aristotle thought taste and touch weren't very important, and so in sort of the western lexicon, sometimes we hold onto old ideas and old traditions, and -- but, you know, it's exciting now because both taste and smell, largely because of the obesity epidemic and worries about what's going on in our bodies is sort of getting a new lay and there's new research being conducted.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Diane in Gaithersburg who writes, "A couple of years ago I noticed that the chicken I bought in supermarkets did not taste as good as it used to, and favorite chicken recipes didn't taste good anymore. Now I buy chicken from Amish suppliers, and they taste good again. I've noticed the same is true of beef. Any idea why?"
PETRICKThe variety, you know, chicken is a really interesting story which Roger Horowitz has written about extensively about the collapse of the genetic diversity within chickens. I mean, pretty much all commercial chickens are derived from the sort of same uber chicken, if you want to think about it that way. And so the varieties matter quite a bit, and so the varieties your Amish producers are producing are going to be different than the large commercial producers like Perdue or Tyson.
PETRICKAnd so we have cultivated a lot of the flavor out of our chicken. There's no doubt about that. When I was living in Australia, I called my mom and I said, mom, the chicken, it tastes like chicken. The pork, it tastes like pork. And you so, you know, we have seen a lot of genetic collapse in our animals which is quite worrisome to biologists and people concerned about the future of food system, so I'm not surprised.
NNAMDIGabriella Petrick is a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. She's also author of the upcoming books "Industrializing Taste: Food Processing and the Transformation of the American Diet, 1900 - 1965," and "Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter: Taste in History." Gabriella Petrick, thank you so much for joining us.
PETRICKThank you. This has been a pleasure.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help from Stephannie Stokes. The engineer is Kellan Quigley. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones today. The phones have given her a vacation of a few days. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDITo share questions or comments us, email firstname.lastname@example.org, join us Facebook, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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