I traveled to Europe recently, which I haven’t done in a couple decades, and was reminded immediately of a danger that tends to go unacknowledged: the reduction of foreign lands and peoples to a series of clichés or stereotypes. Tourist guides and websites reinforce the effect. This tendency may be forgivable with respect to food, considering that one has multiple meals per day, which thus occupy a significant portion of one’s time and attention abroad. My rediscovery of truly fresh-baked bread (given the superior European tradition of daily shopping for bakery goods, I suspect that propionic acid and sodium propionate used as preservatives in American bread and other baked goods was not present) called to mind a book recommended at Gin and Tacos (see blogroll) entitled Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. Although obvious perhaps in hindsight, it was surprising to learn (via book blurbs and recommendations) that demand for foods that could withstand transport times to combat troops without spoilage was a principal driver of innovation in food processing technologies, which have been further refined over the decades by Big Ag.
Here a good example: peeled and skinless tangerines and mandarin oranges used in salads are passed through steam or hot water at about 90ºC for 2–3 minutes to loosen the peel and make it easier to separate from the segments. Segments are then separated and the segmental membrane is removed by chemical treatment — meaning it’s dissolved in an acid solution, which is neutralized in turn with an alkaline solution. This is described in greater detail in expired U.S. Patent No. 4,294,861 entitled “Method of Separating and Taking Out Pulp from Citrus Fruits.” Here’s the abstract:
A method and an apparatus for processing citrus fruits into a drink, which is the juice of the fruits containing separate juice vesicles, or sacs, of the pulp, by cutting the fruits into pieces and directing jets of a fluid against the cut surfaces, thereby separating and forcing the pulp in the form of separate sacs away from the peel and segmental membrane of the fruit pieces.
Of course, citric acid is naturally occurring in, well, citrus fruits. (Citric acid also makes for a surprisingly potent cleaning agent.) But I find it more than a little ooky to treat foods in acid baths, or to add acids to ingested foods (is there another kind?) as preservatives. Admittedly, all sort of acids are present naturally in foods: malic acid in apples and cherries; tartaric acid in grapes, pineapples, potatoes, and carrots; acetic acid in vinegar; oxalic acid in cocoa and pepper; tannic acid in tea and coffee; and benzoic acid in cranberries, prunes, and plums. Less natural but wholly familiar to typical Murricans, corrosive phosphoric acid (also known as orthophosphoric acid) is used as an acidifying agent in soft drinks (which also contain relatively harmless carbonic acid) and jams to provide a tangy flavor. Otherwise, the syrup/sugar content alone would be enough to make one vomit. Fumaric acid is also used in noncarbonated soft drinks.
Maybe none of these rise to the level of universal acid that eats through everything, including stomach linings, or to sulfuric acid found in batteries (or more simply, battery acid). Still, our food is nonetheless suffused in acids, and the idea of adding more to bakery goods to make them shelf stable may account for why European bakery goods made for that day only are so far superior to most American bakery goods able to sit in one’s breadbox almost indefinitely. Cue the periodic newsbit about a McDonald’s meal allowed to sit out for some extended period of time (often years) without spoiling in the least.