Convenience Foods

Convenience food is very much a twentieth-century concept. In the nineteenth century, the main reason for processing food before sale was to increase its shelf life. This was a matter of increasing concern, given that the growth of the urban population meant that food had to be transported from further and further afield to the place of consumption in order to meet rising demand. Bottling, canning, and drying were methods that assisted food preservation and were amenable to mass-production and distribution. The archetypal canned food is Heinz baked beans, made by the U.S. H. J. Heinz Company, which is now sold all over the world. The disadvantage of canned foods was that the high temperatures at which the food was cooked, in order to kill enzymes and bacteria, also destroyed some vitamins. Canned foods also have a high content of sugar and salt, which are used as flavor enhancers.

Increasing production of preserved foods containing additives led governments to impose legal standards. In Britain, the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875 imposed much stricter guidelines and penalties than earlier legislation. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906. A number of minor religious sects stressed the importance of a healthy diet. Notable amongst these were the Seventh-day Adventists, whose headquarters were in the small town of Battle Creek, Michigan. The name of Battle Creek became familiar internationally owing to its emergence as the center of breakfast cereal production. The Adventists championed breakfast cereals because of their nutritional value, but the cereals became popular in the twentieth century because of their convenience. It was the convenience factor that spurred the development of new preservation techniques, including deep-freezing, irradiation, and freeze-drying. These techniques not only extend the life of food, making fewer shopping trips necessary, but also shorten the cooking time, an increasingly important factor as more women went out to work. The convenience of bulk buying led to a shift in food retailing from the local store offering personal service to the self-service supermarket. By 1959, supermarkets accounted for 69 percent of American food sales. In Britain, supermarkets were slower to take hold, but were dominant by the 1970s.