Packaged, pre-made food products have not always been as abundant as they are today. The history of processed food has been directly affected by important moments of America’s history. Industrialization provided food processors the capability to mass produce, mass market, and standardize. This movement innovated the way meals were produced and gave way to the creation of processed, preserved, canned, and packaged a wide variety of foods.
Initially there were a few processed foods available in the early 1900’s like Oreos and Aunt Jemima syrup. Cereal was one of the first widely marketed “health foods”. In its original form the first cereal was made with a grain like wheat or rice and was similar to a corn flake with no added sugars. One of the major driving forces for ready-to-cook foods was war time. In conjunction with World War I canned and frozen foods became popular. Shortly thereafter processed foods began to take over the nations diet. Spam gained popularity because it was a perfect item to feed troops. More than 100 million pounds of SPAM luncheon meat are shipped abroad to feed allied troops during World War II. After World War II there was an increase in the supply of processed food items, therefore marketers needed to make a demand. Military research had brought about many new “convenience foods” like dehydrated juice and cake mix.
These new ways of preparing food was advertised to women as a means of liberating them from the kitchen, saving them time and giving them freedom to get out of the kitchen. By the 1960’s televisions and microwaves become popular and were found in many American homes. Products like Swanson TV dinners started to emerge alongside the rise of fast food restaurants. The amount of food dollars that were spent outside of the home rose sharply in the 1970s when more women joined the work force.
The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) required that all packaged foods include standard nutrition labeling information. The 1990’s also saw the mass consumption of caloric sweeteners.
The increasing amounts of meals that Americans ate from fast food restaurants and premade meals wreaked havoc on their waistlines. As response to this manufactures came out with new formulated products that were “low-fat,” “fat-free” and diet. The creation of low fat product lines was more about getting consumers to keep buying products and less about their health. Fat content was reduced by removing high-fat ingredients but the products still needed to taste good so artificial flavors and sweeteners were added in order to counterbalance the change as well as preservatives to extend shelve lives.
The amount of new food products, in 2000, that were marked “reduced/low fat” was 2,076 out of 16,890. Which had been a peak at the time. In the past years, marketers have become increasingly likely to make heavy use of nutrition claims (including “low fat”), health claims, and vague unregulated claims or health sales (“smart choice” or “good for you”).
In 2007 the recession had caused many people to begin to cook more foods at home and eat out less often. There is a growing concern about nutrition. About 80% of meals were prepared at home in November 2013, about the same as 2012, NPD data show. The percentage of meals prepared at home has risen steadily from 77.4% in 2008 at the beginning of the recession. Consumers want more health food items conveniently available to them. Popular movements such as the organic movement have caused consumers to question how and what our food is made of.
As an outcome of these movements “processed food” has become synonymous with unhealthy. But processed foods should not holistically be seen as bad. Products that are canned, frozen, or pasteurized can be very health. By freezing vegetables farmers are able to harvest them at their peak and we can have a consistent supply of fresh vegetables. There are also products that need to be processed for human consumption like oatmeal and coco-beans.
The use of nutrition labels has changed over the past twenty years, where as the products that they are posted on have drastically changed forms. It wasn’t until 1990 that food producers were required on most prepared and packaged food. Much more prepared packaged food has been lining the shelves of grocery stores. Notably over the past few years consumers have become more vested in what exactly they are putting into their bodies. A study done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed a sinificant rise in the percentage of working-age adults who look at labels either most of the time or always when shopping, up from 34% in 2007 to 42% as well as from 51% of Americans older than 68 to 57%.
The Food and Drug Association has announced that it will be updating nutrition labels, though any specific details are unknown at this time. The FDA said that knowledge about nutrition has evolved over the last 20 years, and the labels need to reflect that. Guidelines have been sent to the White House but it is unknown when they might been released. Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said the FDA has been working on this issue for a decade.
A few popular suggested changes by health advocates include
Emphasize calorie counts
Put added sugar on its own line
clearer definition of serving size
added percentage of whole wheat
clearer measurements, getting rid of grams
It is not clear what changes the FDA could decide on but it is clear that changes needed to be made. Hopefully changes will be made as soon as possible so consumers can become more knowledgeable about what type of products they are consuming.