My entire life, I have refrigerated my soy milk. Because I buy it refrigerated, I always assumed it had to be refrigerated (plus, I think it tastes better cold). I had a minor existential crisis during Nicola Twilley’s talk, when she revealed that the refrigeration of soy milk in stores is a ploy by soy milk companies to create the illusion of freshness. Because we associate freshness with perishable foods, it makes sense that refrigeration (even if it is unnecessary) would make a product seem fresher. However, according to Twilley, those connotations are relatively new.
Although the first US patent for a fridge was issued in 1951, fridges were slow to catch on – partially because natural ice worked well for keeping food cold, but mostly because people were initially wary of refrigeration. This wariness stemmed from the general public’s lack of trust in the food production system: previously, when people lived on farms and grew their own food, it was obvious where things were coming from and how they were being made. However, increased urbanization and specialization created a disconnect between consumers and the origins of their meals. Because people couldn’t literally follow the food from the source, they had no way of ensuring a food was fresh.
Before refrigeration emerged, food was either obviously fresh in appearance or it was clearly moldy. Preserved food such as pickles, canned vegetables, and salted fish were easy to identify as being preserved, because the visual appearance of the food changed during the preservation process. However, refrigeration maintains a food’s appearance while extending its lifespan, which wreaked havoc on consumers’ ability to ascertain just how fresh a product really was. The public didn’t fully understand refrigeration, so it seemed scary and dangerous – after all, refrigerated foods seemed, in many ways, to be lying about their age. This paranoia about refrigeration even led to claims that refrigeration was causing diseases such as pneumonia! Activists insisted that refrigerated foods be labeled as such, and advertisements emerged that contested this idea and insisted on safety of refrigerated eggs and other products.
To combat the general distrust of refrigerated foods, the US government instituted a system for grading the freshness of eggs that involved the size of the albumen, or air bubble within the egg (apparently this is related to why spoiled eggs float – bigger air bubble = older egg). Food were also labeled with “sell-by” and “best-by” dates, which allowed people to gauge the edibility of products without actually smelling or tasting them.
To modern consumers, the paranoia that surrounded refrigeration seems ridiculous today. Fridges are commonplace (I have a dorm mini-fridge next to me as I write this post), and no one believes that they cause pneumonia. In retrospect, consumers’ outrage over unlabeled refrigerated food masquerading as fresh produce seems absurd. However, during Twilley’s talk, I was repeatedly reminded of today’s debates over genetically modified foods and organic produce. Opponents of GMOs link genetically modified produce to everything from autism to reproductive disorders to food allergies. Supporters claim that GMOs will help reduce pesticide use, prevent hunger, and create crops that can grow in arid and inhospitable environments. Similarly, supporters of refrigeration stressed increased access to food, while opponents publicized information about potential health consequences.
I have no way of knowing what way the GMO debate will turn out, and it will likely takes far more longitudinal research to determine which, if any, consequences of GMOs can be empirically substantiated. However, if it is true that history repeats itself, perhaps our children will see today’s demands to label GMOs as absurd, just as we see the outdated public fear of refrigeration to be downright ridiculous.