Running head: REFRIGERATION AND FOOD
Refrigeration and Food
Northland Community and Technical College
Thief River Falls, Minnesota
November 20, 2003
The invention of the refrigerator has been one of the most important technological advances in our domestic history. From as early as the Paleolithic era, people have used cold to preserve food. The Romans used packed ice, the Chinese used salt and snow, but the French invented the first refrigerator. The machine was refined through the use of circulated gases that absorb heat and the inclusion of a freezer compartment. Essentially its development has made human life safer, easier, and more comfortable.
Refrigeration and Food
Eating is the basis for the human body to maintain its life force. Without good food, the body could not maintain its chemical structure, provide energy, or reproduce new cells. As a result, it has always been essential that human beings provide themselves with a steady supply of good, safe food. The invention of the refrigerator made that goal more possible.
Humans have always understood the need to keep food cold. As early as the Paleolithic era 40,000 to 15,000 years ago (“Nutrition,” 2001), humans were storing food in cold areas, such as dug out holes or caves. The Romans upgraded refrigeration to include packing ice around food sent from their far-flung territories, but it was the Chinese who were the first to make a “machine” to create cold out of a combination of salt and snow poured over a bucket of food. The French perfected this machine in the mid-19th century when in 1859 Ferdinand CarrJ and Charles Tellier presented their invention for making ice cubes at the Great Exhibition in London. Only two decades later, the two enterprising Frenchmen were shipping frozen meat across the Atlantic in a ship named Frigorifique, the origin of the word refrigerator (Toussaint-Samat, 1998).
Refrigeration entered the United States in 1851 when Dr. John Gorrie patented the first ice machine in, appropriately, Florida (“History of Ammonia,” n.d.). During the Civil War era, Texas and Louisiana smuggled in one of CarrJ and Tellier’s refrigeration boxes to compensate for the blockade of ice from the North (Woolrich & Clark, 2001). However, block ice remained the preferred cooling method during the 19th century (see Appendix A), until raw sewage pumped into rivers and lakes made the ice unpalatable (Krasner-Khait, 2002). According to librarian and historian Dr. Otto L. Bettmann (1974), this lack of refrigeration left “perishable goods [. . .] subject to the whims of the weather” (p. 110).
The solution was a return to Gorrie’s invention, updated and improved by John Standard and Thomas Elkins in 1879. Their improved refrigerator apparatus was designed to circulate compressed gases that absorb heat (“History of Household,” 2001) and became the basis for the modern refrigerator (“History of Refrigerator,” 2002). General Electric used this concept in the first home refrigerators that appeared in 1911, and in 1915 and 1916, respectively, Frigidaire and Kelvinator followed with their own home refrigerators based on similar technology. Freezers were added during the 1940s (“History of Household”), and since then, humans have been relying on the refrigerator for preserving their food. As Bern Nagengast, refrigeration engineer, says, “‘The household refrigerator changed the way people ate’” (as cited in Krasner-Khait, 2002).
What refrigeration does for us is to slow down the bacteria that cause food poisoning. Food is naturally decaying organic matter which means that all food contains bacteria, a natural product in the decay of organic matter. Our systems need that bacteria in processing the food in our stomachs, but our systems only need so much of that bacteria; any extra will lead to poisoning. However, when food—cooked or uncooked—is exposed to temperatures between 40° and 140° F, the bacteria are in seventh heaven, doubling in number in less than 20 minutes (United States Department, 1999). Eventually the bacteria reach a level where the immune system can no longer protect humans who ingest these superfluous bacteria, and people get food poisoning (Iannelli, 2002). That food poisoning is dangerous is illustrated in the fact that up to 5000 Americans yearly die from food poisoning (Mead, et al, 2002).
Refrigeration—and cooking food to over 140° F—is why the number isn’t higher. Milk products, meat products, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and on and on are safer because they are kept cold (see Appendix B) in the refrigerator. Very few people use an entire package of luncheon meat, a dozen eggs, or a gallon of milk on the day that they purchase the item. Instead, people take what is necessary at the time and plop the rest on the refrigerator shelf, trusting that the refrigerator will keep the product safe until the next time that it is needed.
However, this trust is based on food users understanding that refrigerators must be adjusted properly. To prevent the bacteria from accumulating, a refrigerator’s thermostat must be set at 40° or lower since bacteria can sense even a subtle 5° rise in temperature and multiply to lethal numbers. Dr. Daniel C. Weaver (2000), an expert on food-related illnesses, illustrates just how careful people must be with his own experience with food poisoning:
Some 20 years ago, to save money during my residency, I dialed my refrigerator thermostat up to 45 degrees (my first mistake). Then I made meat loaf with eggs, failing to cook it long enough (second mistake), left it overnight on the counter (third mistake), put it back in the refrigerator (fourth mistake), reheated it in a microwave oven (fifth mistake), and ate it. Six hours later I discovered first-hand salmonella's incubation period.
What he is saying is that people should put their leftovers in the refrigerator and find other ways to conserve on electricity than turning the refrigerator’s thermostat down.
What he didn’t say is that he shouldn’t have tried to have leftover meatloaf. Leftovers provide many nutritious meals. There are certain foods that taste even better after a night in the refrigerator and an adequate warm-up in the microwave or oven. Many casseroles only improve with reheating, and the post-Thanksgiving lunch of warmed-over turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and dressing is almost a tradition. In the north, these meals are possible in the winter without refrigeration since outdoor temperatures can easily preserve casseroles and leftover turkey if stored outside. On the other hand, not everyone lives where it’s winter and it’s not always winter even in the north. Therefore, after a meal of casserole or turkey or any perishable item, smart eaters wrap up the food and place it in the refrigerator—quickly since food needs to be cooled in a hurry to avoid bacteria growth. Because turkeys are so large, they can take up to four hours in the refrigerator to get to that 40° range necessary to stop bacteria growth (Miller, 2000). Without that refrigerator, we would be forced to throw out the leftovers, or we would have to eat the entire bird at one sitting. Refrigeration engineer Keshia Weber (personal communication, January 21, 2002) emphasizes that eating the whole bird at one sitting can also be dangerous since doing so may take long enough for bacteria to start growing as people eat.
Aside from keeping food cold until it is cooked or preserving leftovers for reheating, refrigerators also allow us to have our cold food cold. No one wants to eat room-temperature lettuce, and it’s no surprise that breweries were the first northern companies to make use of refrigeration mechanics (Krasner-Khait, 2002). Summer is made even more enjoyable because refrigerators provide cold drinks, cold salads, and cold sandwiches (see Appendix B for chart on food safety). Salted ham can be preserved without a refrigerator (“Old Fashioned,” 2002), but people like ham sandwiches with mayonnaise, and mayonnaise requires refrigeration because it’s made with raw eggs, one of the most notorious carriers of salmonella (“Food Poisoning,” 2001; Mead et al, 2002).
Cold food, safe leftovers, and bacteria-free products are all good reasons to use the refrigerator, but another good reason is that the refrigerator can also keep medicine safe. There are 17 million people in the United States with diabetes, and 83% of those 17 million take insulin (United States National, 2000). Because insulin can break down if not properly cooled, refrigeration is required for any insulin that is more than three weeks old (Sáeonkson, Fox, & Judd, 1999). Therefore, diabetics absolutely need refrigeration to keep their insulin viable, and since diabetics would die without non-viable insulin, the importance of the refrigerator becomes obvious.
It’s true that science has produced many great inventions that have made our lives easier, more comfortable, and longer. As a result, there is no wonder that refrigeration is one of the top-ten technological advances in human history (“Top 20,” 2002) and that the refrigerator is considered the most essential appliance in the home by 96% of ordinary Americans (Wessels & Wessels, 2002; see Appendix C for complete data). This respect will continue into the future as the refrigerator continues to make our food safe and enjoyable and, thus, preserve humanity throughout the next millennia.
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Workington, Ltd. Retrieved October 22, 2002, from http://www.haighs.com/refridge.htm
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Figure 1. The ice wagon, from “The Impact of the Refrigerator,” by B. Krasner-Khait, 2002, History Magazine, http://www.history-magazine.com/refrig.html
-2o0 to OoC
-1oC to +1oC (with flaked ice)
+1oC to +4oC
+1o0 to +4oC
0oC to +3oC
-18oC to -21oC
Figure 2. Chart indicating temperature at which foods can be stored safely in the refrigerator, from “The Role of Refrigeration in Food Safety,” by Bob Kingsbury, 1997, Haighs Workington, Haighs Ltd., http://www.haighs.com/refridge.htm
Survey on Home Appliances
Email survey conducted of 100 American home owners and renters from 32 states
1. Which of the following appliances do you have in your home? Check all that apply.
o Refrigerator 100
o Wash machine 87
o Dryer 87
o Electric range 82
o Gas range 18
o Microwave 100
o Dishwasher 60
o Toaster oven 14
2. Which of the above would you least like to eliminate from your home?
Refrigerator, 81; range, 3 microwave, 16
Refrigerator—necessary to keep food from spoiling; keep my beer cold; ice; cold milk, etc.
Range—Like to cook.
Microwave—Never have hot food without it; easy to use; small.
4. With which of the above could you most easily do without?
Toaster oven, 100
Range does the same thing; toaster is as good; never had one, never will have one.
 Most people are surprised by the fact that frozen vegetables are fresher than the picked, so-called fresh vegetables found in a grocery store (Fairlie, 1987/2002).