More Things That Conventional Engineering Analysis Would Never Tell You

As promised, today I’ll write about our nation’s food supply and how attempts to “engineer” it wound up drastically reducing the quality of our food.

Sometime in the first half of the 20th century (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly when and how it happened, but I expect that the Depression and WWII had a lot to do with it), food production and distribution reached a sort of tipping point and consumers traded fresh, natural products for processed, frozen or canned. The promise of drastically longer shelf life, lower prices, easier preparation, and year-round availability made the choice a simple one. Frozen vegetables and canned fruit replaced fresh, ground (and even instant!) coffee replaced whole beans, Jiffy Pop and later microwave popcorn replaced whole kernel, margarine and other hydrogenated oils replaced butter.

Half a century and more later, many consumers are turning back to the more natural, fresh, locally produced products for a variety of reasons. It has become known that vegetables lose a great deal of their nutritional value rather quickly after picking, and even more quickly upon cooking. Hydrogenated oils have recently been shown to contain trans-fats, practically unknown in the natural world and detrimental to human health. Consumers attitudes and preferences toward food also seem to be changing, with more emphasis being placed on quality than on convenience.

At thanksgiving last year, my grandfather was recounting the process behind a cup of coffee in his childhood: buying whole beans, roasting them, grinding them by hand at the beginning of the week, brewing them in a mesh sack in a pot. When I told him that I had begun grinding my own beans, he was mystified. Why go through so much effort when  I could just buy coffee grounds? A new generation of coffee drinkers is finally realizing that coffee loses its flavor very quickly after grinding, and opting to buy whole beans again and grind them ourselves just before drinking. Some even choose to roast their own. Improvements in “kitchen gadgets” — countertop electric coffee grinders — has made the process much easier and quicker than it was 70 years ago.

The case of coffee is illustrative of a much larger trend: that of decentralization or even deindustrialization. The cost and convenience benefits of mass production came at the cost of drastically reduced quality and utterly no individuality, but now these benefits are being realized at smaller scales that return some of the humanity to our products. The beauty in coffee is in the complexity of the organic molecules produced upon roasting of the beans. Their very complexity ensures them a short lifespan. Mid-century attempts to industrialize coffee roasting and grinding robbed coffee of the very thing that made it appealing to humans’ complex sensory system, and the same case could be made for a wide range of food products. Now that we have tried the industrial strength approach and found its limitations, we are free to return to an older model that offers more value. When we bring back the old habits, though, we bring them back with a modern expertise and fewer of the hassles that led us away from them in the first place.

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