Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen foods

Our subject for today is frozen foods. According to the Today in Science History website, it was on this day, 6 March 1930, that General Foods first started selling individually packaged frozen foods. Called ‘Birds Eye Frosted Foods’, the idea came from a guy called Clarence Birdseye, who started offering frozen food for sale to the public in 1929, after seeing people thawing and eating frozen fish during a visit to Canada.

Within the first 2 months, sales of the Birds Eye line of frozen foods increased significantly, prompting the start of a huge retail frozen foods industry.

Frozen foods - convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.(© All Rights Reserved)
Frozen foods – convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Freezing is one of the easiest ways of preserving food for future use, by either killing or inhibiting pathogens that cause food spoilage. It is, however, not as effective as high-temperature treatments since less of the harmful pathogens are killed, and those that are only inhibited are likely to again become active once the frozen foods are thawed. Some spoilage processes are also only slowed down and not stopped, and so frozen foods can typically only be kept for a limited time, particularly in some domestic freezers which may not maintain food at low enough temperatures. Long term storage apparently requires temperatures of 0 °F (-18 °C) or lower. Of course boiling and then freezing food greatly increases the effectiveness of the preservation.

As far as nutritional value is concerned, some vitamin loss is said to occur during freezing, mainly Vitamin C, but also, to a much lesser extent, Vitamins B1, B2 and A.

Despite its limitations, freezing remains one of the most widely used preservation techniques, with frozen pre-cooked meals counting among the most popular products. Its convenience and practical value has made the frozen foods industry a massive multi-national, multi-million dollar industry.

So next time you grab a quick frozen meal from the freezer, think about good old Clarence Birdseye and the Canadians with their frozen fish, who started it all back in the early part of the 20th century.

Bernard Courtois and his beautiful violet vapor

It’s chemistry time again, folks… Today we celebrate the birthday of Bernard Courtois (8 Feb 1777 – 27 Sep 1838), the French chemist from Dijon who discovered iodine.

Iodine, courtesy of Bernard Courtois.(© All Rights Reserved)
Iodine, courtesy of Bernard Courtois.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Courtois’ father worked as a saltpeter manufacturer, and instilled in his son an interest in chemistry and pharmacy. He studied pharmacy and, while working with Armand Seguin at the Ecole Polytechnique, he investigated opium. During this period, Courtois and Seguin managed to isolate pure morphine, the first known alkaloid, from opium.

His greatest contribution, however, came after he returned to Dijon to assist in his father’s saltpeter business. Traditionally, wood ash was used as the source of potassium nitrate for the saltpeter, but due to a wood ash shortage they turned to using seaweed as an alternative source. In 1811, while extracting sodium and potassium extracts from seaweed ash, Courtois accidentally stumbled upon a new element – adding sulfuric acid to the ash resulted in the appearance of a beautiful violet vapor that condensed into deep violet crystals resembling graphite.

Iodine has since proved an important trace element in human and animal biology. It is a key constituent of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. The thyroid gland requires about 70 µg/day to synthesize these hormones, but additional iodine (RDA 150 µg/day for adults) is necessary to support the function of a range of biological systems in the body. Since iodine is scarce in nature (it is mainly available, as Courtois discovered 200 years ago, in ocean-based sources such as seaweed) it is often included as an additive in iodised salt, for example, to ensure that we get a sufficient daily dose.

Even though Courtois did not, at the time, realise that he had discovered a new element, he was subsequently acknowledged as the true discoverer of iodine. In 1831 he received the Montyon Prize from the L’Academie royale des sciences for his work. He never gained any financial benefit from his discovery, though, and his obituary in the Journal de chimie médicale strikes quite a sad note:

“Bernard Courtois, the discoverer of iodine, died at Paris the 27th of September, 1838, leaving his widow without fortune. If, on making this discovery, Courtois had taken out a certificate of invention, he would have realized a large estate.”

Milk Day, celebrating milk as a source of human nutrition

Today, according to various food blogs and holiday sites, is Milk Day. Rumour has it that this day is celebrated as Milk Day because milk was first delivered in bottles on this day, 11 January, way back in 1878. I did some searching to confirm this, but was unable to do so – it seems there was a patent for a milk container issued in 1878, but the exact issue date for that patent was 29 January.

While I cannot confirm the milk bottle fact, I don’t see any reason why we should not celebrate Milk Day. Internationally, milk is an important source of human nutrition, and in New Zealand in particular, the milk industry forms the backbone of our country’s economy.

A hanging milker device used in a rotary milking parlor.(© All Rights Reserved)
A hanging milker device used in a rotary milking parlor.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The New Zealand milk industry was started nearly two centuries ago in 1814 when the first cows arrived in New Zealand after being imported by early European settlers. New Zealand milk exports started in 1846, and in 1871 the first dairy co-operative was created in the Otago region. From these early initiatives, the New Zealand dairy industry has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2001, the Fonterra company was formed from an amalgamation of existing co-ops, representing the majority of the country’s dairy farmers. Wholly owned by the more than 10 000 farmers who supply milk to it, Fonterra is currently the world’s largest dairy exporter, exporting to more than 100 countries. It is responsible for about 30% of the world’s dairy exports with revenue of close to NZ$ 20 billion (approx US$ 16.8 billion).

While New Zealand leads world milk exports, India is the biggest producer and consumer of milk. India does not, however, import or export milk – it solely produces milk for domestic consumption.

Beyond being a direct source of human nutrition, milk is also processed into a wide range of dairy products – cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter, ice cream, chocolate and more. While the majority of the milk consumed by humans come from cows, the milk from buffalo (esp in India), goats and sheep are also consumed in significant volumes, especially in processed form.

Over the years, human consumption of animal milk has been linked to a variety of health benefits and risks. On the positive side, milk has been found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and it promotes muscle growth and post-exercise recovery. Other reported benefits include improved immune function and relief of hypertension. On the negative side, there has been reports of the casein in milk causing autism spectrum disorders, and excessive consumption of milk has been linked to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and potentially prostate cancer.

While there will probably forever be debates about the benefits and risks of milk consumption, as a source of fat, protein, carbohydrates, salts, minerals and vitamins, it continues to hold significant promise in addressing malnutrition and poverty, particularly as livestock management improves in the developing world.

Celebrating stout beer (not just for nursing mothers and athletes…)

So, today is International Stout Day. I recently discussed stout beer, Guinness in particular, on Arthur’s Day, the 28th of September. But what the heck, I don’t need too much convincing to return to this lovely, dark, malty style of beer again. And of course Guinness, despite being the most famous of the stouts, is far from the only stout beer out there.

Lovely day for a Guinness! 🙂
(© All Rights Reserved)

Guinness is an example of an Irish Stout, also known as a ‘Dry Stout’, one of a range of traditional stout styles.  Dry stouts tend to be very dark in colour, with a toasted, coffee-like taste. Because of their robust taste they are often thought to be quite high in alcohol, which is not always the case – a can of Guinness Draft, for example, has only 4.2% alcohol – lower than many standard lager beers.

The second main stout category is the ‘Imperial Stout’, a stout beer of Russian origin, which is also quite dark, but with a brown, rather than black, hue. This is typically the strongest of the stout beers, with alcohol percentages often up towards the 10% mark. A stout hearty enough to curl a Russian bloke’s chest hair, Imperial stout was traditionally a popular drink to warm the cold winter evenings.

Another style of stout is the ‘Milk Stout’, also dark in colour, but often low in alcohol. The main feature of a milk stout is the addition of milk sugar, or lactose, to the brew, making it sweeter and smoother than dry stout.

Finally, ‘Oatmeal Stout’ is very similar to milk stout, but has an even smoother and sweeter taste, thanks to the addition of up to 30% oatmeal. The ‘oatmeal and milk’ image associated with this type of stout has helped strengthen the idea of stout beer as a hearty meal in it’s own right. The nutritional value of oatmeal stout made it a popular choice in centuries past for nursing mothers and athletes in England .

Beyond the traditional categories above, stout beer is still developing and evolving, with various new styles appearing, such as the ‘American-style Stout’, a medium-bodied malt beer with hints of caramel and chocolate, created using various specialty malts. Often quite dark-roasted, with a burnt-coffee flavour.

Stout beers are also quite popular with home-brewing enthusiasts, and I fondly recall one of the more pleasant beer-tasting experiences I’ve had, at a get-together of the Wort Hog Brewers Club in South Africa. One enterprising home brewer had a specialist stout he called his ‘Black Forest Stout’ – a traditional, full-bodied dry stout with chocolate and berries added to the brew to create what I can only describe as the liquid equivalent of a dark, moist black forest cake. Lovely stuff!

I unfortunately don’t have access to a black forest stout at the moment, but I’m sure a glass of Guinness from my local pub will more than adequately hit the spot.

Happy Stout Day, everyone! “May your Guardian Angel be at your side to pick ya up off the floor and hand ya another cold stout from the store!”

Singing the praises of pasta

Fettuccine, ravioli, lasagne, tortellini, cannelloni, spaghetti, macaroni… If (like me) the mere mention of these words make your mouth water, you’ll be happy to know that today, 25 October, is World Pasta Day.

And this is not just some willy-nilly food day like Chocolate Milkshake Day or Hamburger Day, this is serious stuff. The idea for a World Pasta Day was born out of the World Pasta Congress held in Rome on this day back in 1995. To quote the Union of Organisations of Manufactures of Pasta Products of the EU (UN.A.F.P.A. – believe it or not, there actually is such an organisation):

“Account was taken and stress was laid on the importance of spreading to the utmost the knowledge of pasta among consumers throughout the world by means of collective initiatives of promotional nature and institutional information campaigns. 

The countries with greatest experience in this field made available their know-how for the benefit of those countries which have only recently come to realise the virtues and merits of pasta.”

It all sounds terribly formal, but basically the idea of the day is to organise annual events around the world to promote the benefits of pasta and show that it is “appropriate for a dynamic and healthy life style capable of meeting both primary food requirements and those of high-level gastronomy.”

Lasagne with homemade pasta – that’ll hit the spot!
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m all for it, of course. If I had pick a favourite category of food, pasta would definitely be at or near the top. Its versatility makes it ideal for everything from a quick snack to a hearty home meal to a gastronomic feast.  And I know many people share this passion – quite amazing for a simple dough made from only flour and egg. But of course the magic doesn’t lie in the pasta itself, but in the way it serves as the perfect base for anything from a basic sauce or pesto to a mouthwatering combination of vegetables, meats or seafood.

And the best part of it is that pasta can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. Pasta is a good source of complex carbohydrates, low in sodium, cholesterol free and (in the case of whole wheat pasta) a good source of fibre. And of course it works well with other healthy foods – to quote the Pasta Fits website, it is the perfect partner for “fiber-filled vegetables and beans, heart-healthy fish and vegetable oils, antioxidant-rich tomato sauce and protein-packed cheese, poultry and lean meats.”

While pasta may be traditionally Italian cuisine, the rest of the world has certainly caught on to its appeal. The Italians still eat by far the most pasta (26 kg per capita per year, according the the International Pasta Organisation’s 2010 consumption figures), but Venezuela, Tunisia and Greece also consume more than 10 kg per person, while Switzerland (9.7kg), USA (9.0kg), France (8.1kg), Germany (7.7kg) aren’t too far behind. Australia is a bit down the list, at 4kg per capita, and I have no idea what the figure for New Zealand is. (While the USA may not top the per capita list, they consume the most pasta in total – almost a quarter of the global consumption!)

But wait, enough talking – I’m ready for a good hearty lasagne. Buon appetito!

Charles Glen King and the story of Vitamin C

Today is the birthday of Charles Glen King (22 Oct 1896 – 23 Jan 1988), an American biochemist and the ‘other guy’ who also discovered Vitamin C.

In the early 1930s, King was doing research on the anti-scurvy effects of lemon juice on guinea pigs (guinea pigs are one of only a small group of animals besides humans who cannot produce their own vitamin C, hence they can get scurvy like us). At the same time, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was studying the chemical hexuronic acid that he had previously isolated from animal adrenal glands. Within 2 weeks of each other, both King and Szent-Gyorgyi published papers on the discovery of Vitamin C, showing that the vitamin and hexuronic acid were the same compound.

Szent-Gyorgyi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, for his part in the discovery of Vitamin C, while King was not similarly rewarded. Controversy remains over the extent to which both men deserve partial credit for the discovery.

Given the extent to which Vitamin C is lost from food due to storage, cooking etc, a dietary supplement may be necessary to ensure that you get enough of the good stuff.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid, thanks to its anti-scurvy properties (a- = not; scorbus = scurvy). Besides fighting off scurvy, Vitamin C has many other benefits – it is a cofactor in numerous enzymatic reactions in the body, and it has important antioxidant properties. It also enhances iron absorption, and is a natural antihistamine. However, while it is found in high concentrations in immune cells, its flu-fighting power may be a myth. Despite extensive research, Vitamin C has not been proven effective in the prevention or treatment of colds and flu. It does not reduce the incidence or severity of the common cold, but there are some indications that it may help reduce the duration of illness.

Still, even though it may not ward away the sniffles, getting a decent daily dose will definitely do you more good than harm – there doesn’t appear to be many adverse effects from overdosing, since excessive amounts of Vitamin C is simply lost through nonabsorption or urination.

So, don’t hold back on the chilli peppers, guavas, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, fresh herbs, kiwifruit, strawberries and, yes, good old oranges.

And while you’re feasting away, spare a thought for Charles Glen King, the unsung hero in the Vitamin C story.

Give us this day our daily bread

Today is World Bread Day. While it coincides with the United Nations’ World Food Day, it’s a much more lighthearted celebration.  For the past seven years, 16 October has been the date that bloggers and other social medialites the world over have baked bread, and shared their experiences with their friends and followers.

A steaming, freshly baked bread must be one of the most basic culinary pleasures in life.  When you’ve been away from fresh food for a few days, there are few things better than a thick slice of bread, hot out of the oven, generously spread with melting butter.

Ahh, bread and olives. Add a glass of wine and life is good.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In a way it is fitting that World Bread Day falls on the same day as World Food Day, given the role of bread as a basic source of nutrition the world over.  Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods, with evidence of bread-making dating back some 30 000 years. Earliest breads seem to have been a form of flat-bread made from starch extract from the roots of plants, while ‘modern’ grain-based bread appeared around 10 000 BC.

Considering it’s prevalence, bread plays an understandably important role in culture and religion. In Christian religion, bread is a symbol for the the body of Christ, while Jewish religion uses different types of bread for specific religious ceremonies and events. Bread is often equated to our general daily necessities (‘Give us this day our daily bread’, ‘putting bread on the table’). Around the 1950’s, ‘bread’ started to be used as a slang euphemism for money – a figure of speech that is now common the world over. Aligned with this comes terms like ‘bread-winner’ as the main income-provider in the family.

Bread is such an amazingly versatile food – once baked, it can be eaten warm or cold, or toasted. Eat it with dipping liquids like gravy, olive oil or soup; spread it with sweet or savoury toppings; stack it as a sandwich with your favourite fillings including meats, cheeses and more – the options are limited by your  imagination only.

All this talk is making me peckish – I think I can do with a slice of toast with homemade marmelade!

Which leaves me with just one question: Whatever was the greatest thing before sliced bread?

Analysing your personality on World Egg Day

Today, the second Friday of October, has been proclaimed World Egg Day by the International Egg Commission (IEC) [], to raise awareness of the nutritional value of eggs, and has been celebrated annually since 1996.

As an affordable source of high quality protein, eggs do indeed play a vital role in feeding people around the world, both in developed and developing countries. According to the IEC, eggs contain just the right mix of amino acids required to build human tissue, and is second only to mother’s milk as a protein source for human nutrition. Egg yolks are also an abundant source of Vitamin D.

Considering the different ‘egg personalities’, I wonder what a preference for double yolked eggs might signify?
(© All Rights Reserved)

OK, so here’s an interesting egg story. According to a recent report on research performed by Mindlab International, a person’s preferred way of eating eggs may have a lot to say about their personalities, jobs and even sex drive. Applying data mining techniques to a sample of just over a thousand British adults, they searched for statistically meaningful relationships between people’s characters, lifestyles, social class etc, and whether they preferred their eggs boiled, poached, fried, scrambled or as an omelette.

Here are a few highlights from the Mindlab findings:

  • Poached egg eaters are mostly women, and tend to be outgoing, energetic extroverts. They prefer brighter clothing, livelier music and tend to be happy.
  • Boiled egg fans are also mostly female, and they tend towards the upper working class. They are likely to be disorganised, careless and impulsive, and run a higher than average risk of getting divorced.
  • Fried egg eaters tend to be younger males, and from the skilled working class. They are more open to new experiences, creative, curious and imaginative. They apparently also tend to have a higher sex drive.
  • Scrambled eggs is the preferred choice among those in their twenties and thirties, who tend to be in managerial or senior level jobs. They were also found to be less neurotic, but at the same time more guarded and less open.
  • Finally, the omelette is a middle class favourite, and omelette lovers tend to be reliable, organised and disciplined. They also tend to have tidy homes, live longer, and are less likely to get divorced.

So there you have it…

If the above ‘research’ does not sound enough like pseudoscience yet, the Mindlab findings go further and relates egg-eating habits to star signs. Apparently Aquarius, Leo and Taurus prefers their eggs poached, Cancer, Capricorn and Libra are fans of fried eggs, and Aries, Gemini, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio and Virgo opt for scrambled eggs.

Still reading?  Well, even your position in the family pecking order may influence on your egg preference – first borns are said to prefer scrambled eggs, while those who were born third or later would rather eat their eggs fried. Second borns apparently have no marked preference.

What exactly the value of these results are, is beyond me. But then again it did give me something to write a blog post about, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. 🙂

Happy World Egg Day, everyone!