How Tech Changed Our Meals
And How That Changes Our Lives
From the dawn of mankind, mealtime has been a centerpiece in the formation of a community. “Communion,” now understood as Christian terminology, is simply the act of consuming something as a group, thereby becoming more closely knit. Technology, too, is a post from which much of any culture or community is built. In this way, technology has developed food preparation, which is reflected by each culture. Throughout our history, technologies have altered the ways we think about mealtime; and therefore the ways our communities function as a whole.
Before agriculture, much of any human’s time was spent simply getting food together for their immediate community. Hunter-gatherers roamed the land in groups: men were to hunt for meat, while women and children foraged for wild fruit, vegetables, and nuts. At the end of each journey, groups would come together and enjoy meals, appreciating what each “team” had brought to the “table”. Hunter-gatherers suffered from very little disease due to their extremely varied diet and high levels of activity. Where one day’s meals could be buffalo, nuts, and greens, another could be rabbit, mushrooms, and berries.
These people relied only on consistent efforts and what nature offered them in the moment. There wasn’t a need to do much more than find food, enjoy it, and wander to another fertile area. For this reason, hunter-gatherers spent much of their time doing whatever else they pleased while enjoying great health.
The Agricultural Revolution
As humans began growing their own crops, raising livestock, and building villages, communities grew in size. Still, much work had to be done for everyone to remain nourished. Farmers and their families would commit hours of labor, growing food to provide for themselves and their village. Other families committed their time to providing utilities to their community — like defenses, construction, tools, organization, and art — to pay or trade for food of their own. Because there was security in the existence of a regular, reliable food supply, other aspects of culture had space to flourish. However, this was not without expense — because there was far less diversity in the human diet, general health and strength declined considerably as time marched on. Many populations saw a decline in height, as well as dental health.
Methods of cooking developed beyond the discovery of fire (pots, pans, and simple ovens had come to be), so more complicated recipes began to be developed. Mothers and their children would work for hours to prepare a meal to be enjoyed with their entire family at the end of a long day. Peas and lentils were more widely enjoyed, as were grains, breads, and cereals. This is also when commonly eaten meats changed from a wide variety of wild game to regular livestock — pork, beef, and chicken.
The Industrial Revolution
With the industrial revolution came much faster world trade and a plethora of processed foods. New machinery meant the production of seed oils and cereals with little to no fiber, while new trade possibilities meant more sugar for everyone. Between 1880 and 1976, consumption of cereal fiber within the United States is estimated to have decreased by 90% in favor of plain, fiber-free starches. The industrial revolution meant more ubiquitous labor than ever before in human history, as tons of work was now needed in production and machinery operation. Poor workers relied on cheap carbohydrates in order to sustain themselves through long workdays.
Despite the underclass being malnourished and overworked, the industrial revolution brought with it a significant increase in the average weight of men. Between 1863 and 1963, the average weight of a man increased from 147 pounds to 170 pounds. This is partly due to the creation of processed foods, seed oils, and fiber-free cereals, which people would fill up with — to no nutritional benefit — and cause inflammation and blockages in their digestive systems. Bodies could not properly digest the new common foods, which were empty calories with no variation. People were devoting less of their personal time to meals as time wore on. Soon, new inventions like vehicles and industrial refrigeration would allow meals — along with the rest of the world — to become much faster.
Television, Microwaves, and the Household Refrigerator
By the 1950s in the United States, over 80% of farms and 90% of urban families owned the modern home refrigeration unit we know today. This allowed for larger supermarkets to pop up all over the country, as food waste was lessened. Refrigerated vehicles were also extremely common, which meant food could be transported around the world without spoiling. This allowed for a wider array of fruits, vegetables, fish, and dairy to be offered to a broader market. Americans could now have access to new foods like bananas, pineapples, and mangoes, having their pick of ripe offerings from around the world.
Statistically, they did not choose well. One-half of all American deaths in the 1950s were caused by heart disease. 10% of adults were reported to be obese. This was the beginning of the obesity epidemic we know well today. Home refrigerators allowed for the fastest food yet to become a household norm — the frozen meal. Before this, frozen meals had been marketed to bars and restaurants as a way to offer food without hiring cooks. In 1949, Meyer and Albert Bernstein founded Frozen Dinners Inc., selling more than two million frozen meals by 1954 as the Quaker State Food Corporation. At the same time, Swanson was releasing the “TV Dinner,” selling ten million in its first year or production.
During this time, another invention was changing the face of meals: the compact, domestic microwave first became a big seller in 1967. Now that people had access to ways of preserving food, and ways of heating it quickly, the process of selling, making, and eating a meal would be changed forever. In combination with the popularity of frozen meals, the microwave made dinner within minutes, and scarfing it down in front of a television normal.
But Could It Be Even Faster?
Today the trend of fast meals aided by tech has become an entirely new, widely popular market. Customers can order those same industrial restaurant frozen meals, or whatever they please, with a few taps on their phone and a bank card. UberEats had 81 million users as of 2021 — the equivalent of one-quarter of the entire American population. Behind it sits DoorDash and GrubHub, both with about 20 million users. The most popular choices on these apps in Tennessee? Pad thai and stuffed jalapenos. Great taste, for sure, but not ideal for the arteries.
Of course, fast “healthy” meal subscription plans are also rising in popularity. These companies ship frozen or preserved ingredients to be cooked at home, usually in minutes. One of the most popular options, HelloFresh, is generally priced at $10 and up per serving, and boasts “high-quality ingredients sourced straight from the farm.” Take out pricing aside (plus shipping), “high-quality ingredients” may be up for debate: many of the cheeses, condiments, and sauces found in a typical HelloFresh meal kit are riddled with the same seed oils and unenriched carbohydrates that poor workers relied on in the 1800s. A bit archaic, no? Today we know many common seed oils offered in food can cause inflammation and cancer over time.
The absolute pinnacle of ultra-fast, “healthy” eating is offered by a company called SquarEat. This product of the Brave New World offers shiny little squares of condensed food items at a cost of $15.50 per “meal” — that’s six squares. These squares require no cooking or preparation whatsoever and could be eaten as quickly as one could shove them into their mouth. SquarEat uses vacuum seals and low temperatures to make “real food” into snack-size shapes while preserving nutrients. Most squares involve some combination of its base, potato starch, coconut oil, and spices, pureed and slow-cooked into a gleaming cube. None include any dairy. All are described on the website as “Exquisite and delicate patty.” We’ll take their word for it.
The Big Picture
Food technology has provided us incredible utility allowing us to spend less time preparing, cooking, and eating food.. We now are able to live in one area and retain access to an enormous variety of foods with almost infinite variety. However, the further we’ve moved along this path, the less healthy and more reliant on extra medicine we’ve become. While some readers may immediately feel as though we need to reject the tools that the ingenuity of prior generations has brought to us, others might suggest that it’s the way we use them that counts. It’s doubtful that companies selling millions or billions of units would have such a change of heart. Until then, it may be necessary to rely on good old-fashioned farmers’ markets and home cooking for our own health — mental and physical.