Humble fridge is coolest innovation in food and drink
SLICED bread might not get a mention, but Britain’s leading scientists have named the top 20 most important innovations in the history of food and drink.
Fridges, pasteurised milk and tin cans top the list, beating ancient inventions including the fishing net, the plough and the cork, without which our ancestors would have struggled to survive.
Refrigeration – first demonstrated in Glasgow in the 18th century – came out on top, while vital kitchen tools, such as the pot, the knife and the spoon, came 14th, 15th and 16th respectively.
A team of 45 scientists from the Royal Society ranked a shortlist of 20 innovations by their levels of accessibility, productivity, aesthetics and health benefits.
Two of the top three discoveries named by the group of Royal Society fellows, chaired by Royal Society treasurer Sir Peter Williams, were made in Britain – artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated in Glasgow in 1748, and the tin can was patented by a British merchant in 1810.
The first pasteurisation test was completed in France in 1862.
Sir Peter said: “Royal Society fellows have played vital roles in improving people’s lives for 350 years and science has a major role to play in meeting the global challenges of the 21st century.
“We thought it appropriate to look at how that innovation has shaped what we eat and drink.
“The poll reveals the huge role science and innovation have played in improving our health and our lives.
“This is something to which the scientific community continues to add.”
Refrigeration, of course, allows food to be kept fresher for longer, allowing people without a large garden to eat a more varied and more nutritious diet.
The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen, a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and First Physician to the King in Scotland, at the University of Glasgow in 1748, though he did not put his discovery to any practical use.
It was not until 1805 that the first practical refrigeration machine was developed, and it took until the middle of the century before an ice machine was invented, by James Harrison, a Scottish immigrant living in Australia, that could be used in commercial industries such as brewing and meat packing.
It was not until the start of the 20th century that fridges became available for domestic use – the earliest ones were essentially a unit mounted on top of an ice box, but by 1916 what would become the modern model of a self-contained refrigeration unit appeared.
The Royal Society said: “Refrigeration has played the biggest role of any innovation in improving the diets of millions of people. It is responsible for bringing a more varied, interesting, nutritious and more affordable diet to an ever increasing number of people.”
Pasteurisation is the process of heating food to a specific temperature to kill bacteria inside and prevent spoilage, and was first used to heat wine in China in 1117.
Prior to its scientific discovery, a form of pasteurisation was practised in Britain with the scalding and straining of cream to increase the “keeping qualities” of butter.
However, modern pasteurisation, including immediate cooling, was created by the microbiologist Louis Pasteur in 1862, although the process was originally conceived as a way of preventing wine and beer from souring.
The pasteurisation of milk was first suggested by Franz von Soxhelt in 1886, extending its shelf-life, while eliminating at least 90 per cent of harmful bacteria.
The Royal Society said: “Improperly handled raw milk is responsible for nearly three times more hospitalisations than any other food-borne disease outbreak, making it one of the most potentially dangerous food products.”
Canning provided a way of preserving all sorts of food, and also makes it easy to be transported.
British merchant Peter Durand invented and patented the tin can in 1810 – although in his application he mentioned that the idea was communicated to him by a friend.
Durand had been suspicious of the process and carried out extensive experiments on it with a view to turning it into a large-scale production.
He arranged for food-filled cans to sail with the Royal Navy for a four- to six-month period, before members of the Royal Society and Royal Institution examined their contents and found them perfectly preserved.
Durand did not pursue canning food himself but sold the patent for £1,000.
Three years later, in 1813, the UK’s first commercial canning factory was opened. However, the can opener was not invented until 50 years later.
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