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Tag: nutrition

Canned Food is Fine

When I was a kid in the 1950s and 60s, my mother had the opinion that canned food was of low-quality and best avoided. I was young and took her word for it. I maintained this opinion myself into adulthood and sometimes shared it with others. But occasionally I wondered because my own observations and experience didn’t agree. In the late 1990s I became sufficiently curious and learned about it. But first some history.

A Real Short History of Modern Canning

The Dutch Navy were the first to seal foods like salmon in metal cans in 1772. For some reason, this process remained unknown outside of the Netherlands.

The rest of the story begins with French military logistics. In 1795, Napoleon offered a large reward to anyone who could develop a way to preserve foods so that armies could have better provisions when deployed, especially in summer temperatures. As you may know, logistics is what wins wars and availability of food was a major limiting factor in what armies could do.

Fifteen years later, Nicolas Appert won Napoleon’s prize after observing that food cooked inside a sealed jar did not spoil. The reason for this was unknown for another 50 years until Pasteur identified the role of microbes in the spoilage of food. The army worked on developing this process but advancement was slow and the wars were over before useful quantities could be produced.

Development of the canning process continued in Europe and the U.S.A. A process was developed for canning foods in hand-made wrought-iron cans, which worked. But the process was labor intensive and expensive. In 1824, Parry took canned beef along on his voyage to the Arctic. In 1829, James Ross took canned food to the Arctic as did John Franklin in 1845. Some of these provisions were found in 1857. One can was opened in 1939 and found to be edible and nutritious but was not tested for lead contamination from the lead solder used to make those cans.

By the mid-1800s, the wealthy began to see canned foods as a status symbol and novelty. By the 1860s, rising urban populations increased demand for canned food. Many inventions and machines were developed to fabricate cans rapidly. Improved processing methods reduced cooking time from six hours to 30 minutes.

Skipping ahead, a big step was the invention of the double-seam can in 1888. These provided a reliable perfect seal and were called Sanitary Cans. This is the type of can we use today. By World War 1, mass production of canned goods was perfected and large quantities of food, coffee, cigarettes, medications, and ammunition were packaged for the soldiers in cans by the British, French, and the U.S.A. At the end of the war, the companies equipped to make such foods like Nestle and Underwood turned to selling to the general public. Canned foods proliferated. It was now possible for European made foods to be sold in the U.S. and vice versa. Canned tomatoes and canned peaches were available year-round, regardless of the season. It was a whole new world.

Expiration Dates and Safety

I’m old so while I now expect expiration dates on foods, it still seems like a new thing for me. I remember when milk started to bear a date, then eggs, then meat. Before that you could write your own date with a grease pencil if you wanted to. And these were manufacturing or packaging dates, not expiration, best by, or use by dates. Food manufacturers soon realized that by putting “use by” dates on everything they could force supermarkets and consumers to donate or discard food that was past the date and sell a lot more product. Very quickly, manufacturers were all-in on putting dates. Customers began to expect dates.

Today, everything has a date. Even bottled water has a date and many consumers think dates are required by law. They are not. The only things in the U.S.A. required to have a date are pharmaceuticals and baby formula.

When use-by dates began to appear on cans, I just laughed. Cans are hermetically sealed and then heated to sterilization temperature or higher, as high as 130C. Most items are cooked in the sealed can itself. There’s no chance for microbial contamination unless the can leaks.

Modern double seam cans like we’ve used for the past 100 years almost never leak. When they do it’s usually visible. If a can isn’t damaged or bulging and passes the appearance and smell tests, it’s safe to eat.

In the 1970s, a trove of cans of freeze-dried food from 1865 was discovered and tested1. There was no trace of microbial contamination and the food was safe to eat. In the 2000s a trove of cans of various foods from the Depression Era (1930s) was discovered which were sent to a food lab for analysis. All of it was safe to eat. The worst case of degradation was the canned corn, which had lost 30 percent of its nutrient value, but was safe to eat.

Do canned foods last 20 years? USDA says “Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely.”

Back to My Mother

In short, my mom’s opinion about canned food was false. But why did she have this opinion? Thinking back on the stories she told me as I was growing up provided the answer. My mom grew up in a big city in Northern Germany in the 1910s and 20s. By the 1920s, a lot of the food on the table was canned because that’s all that was available. Her mother was an early health-food proponent and went to great lengths to seek out fresh fruits and vegetables, gather wild berries and mushrooms. This made an impression on my mother.

When my mom came to the United States in the 1930s, she was astonished at the abundant fresh foods available in markets everywhere, even in big cities. And like most immigrants, she had the idea that everything was better in the U.S.A., which led to her deprecation of canned foods as inferior.


The truth is it’s not a matter of inferior or superior, it’s a matter of cooked versus fresh. If you want raw or lightly steamed broccoli, that’s not going to happen with a can. On the other hand, the can of broccoli will be there waiting for you years into the future without power-consuming refrigeration or freezers. Canned foods tend to be cheaper not because they’re lower quality but because it’s usually prepared near the farm, doesn’t need refrigerated transport, and doesn’t have to be rushed to the market before it spoils. There’s also less waste that has to be refrigerated and rushed to the market. How much of a broccoli head’s mass amd volume do you actually use? A third? The rest goes in the trash but you paid for all of it to come to you fresh.

If you consider the can itself, it’s made of steel, which is cheap, abundant, and non-polluting in a landfill. Unlike plastics, steel is easily recycled but hardly anyone does because steel is so cheap. If you look at the big picture, canned foods make a lot of sense.

Understanding Whipped Cream

I use cream for cooking and also make whipped cream for desserts, a quart at a time, about once a day. Sometimes I make it several times a day. These are sweetened with sugar and flavored with vanilla, sometimes banana, lemon, or chocolate.

Doing this for years with a hand mixer, I’ve noticed big differences between brands and types of cream. My favorite that I use the most is Glenville Farms Heavy Cream. It whips fast, becomes very stiff, and is stable. You can quickly ice a cake with it and it stays put. It never creeps or sags. This cannot be said of any other brands I’ve tried, and I’ve tried all kinds.

If you make things with whipped cream, you might like to know why Glenville is the best I’ve found and what to look for. Cream is cream, right? It’s the stuff at the top of raw milk. Not exactly. It varies.

What varies is the fat content. The higher the fat, the faster it will whip and the more stiff and stable it will be. Fat is expressed as a percentage. Finding out the percentage can be challenging because it’s usually not printed on the carton or bottle.

The minimum fat content needed for it to whip at all is 30 percent. Some brands get by with even less by adding a thickening agent like carrageenan. Look for it in the ingredients. You can recognize this as it flows out of the bottle as a very thick gloppy liquid. Real cream is thick but still flows smoothly like a liquid. The result of low-fat-content cream will be okay for some purposes but will be soft, light, less stable, less flavorful. This is often labeled “whipping cream”. A better result occurs with fat content of 37 to 38 percent and this often labeled “heavy cream”. Glenville has 40 percent and its superiority is evident in the result and flavor.

I was going to publish a list comparing different brands, but accurate info is difficult to get hold of, so I decided not to, for now. What I found, however, was something to beware of if you are a dieter or paying close attention to nutrition. I found that several nutrition sites on the web do not show accurate information. Some sites allow you to search products by brand and type. I found that the information they publish for all brands and types of cream is identical. They just copy-pasted the exact same information on every brand and type — the same calories per tablespoon, the same grams of fat per 15 ml. We know that’s not true.

Food Labeling Discrepancy

About one percent of the U.S. population suffers from a sensitivity to peanuts. Accordingly, foods are labeled to warn if any peanut products are contained. Even packages of roasted peanuts that are labeled “PEANUTS” in giant letters, also include a list of ingredients showing peanuts, plus a warning that says, “Warning: Contains Peanuts”, as though a package labeled PEANUTS might not contain peanuts.

About the same percentage of the U.S. population, about one percent, suffers from a gluten sensitivity that sickens and causes physical damage to the digestive system, yet there is no requirement for food labels to show a warning for gluten or ingredients that contain gluten. Why?

A few specialty food makers produce gluten-free products and label them as such but most mainstream food makers do not. Wal-Mart’s Great Value brand does label gluten-free products, which is great, but products without the gluten-free label are a guessing game. They might or might not contain gluten. Kraft Foods has promised to label anything containing gluten by including “wheat” in the ingredients list. That’s very nice of them still does not provide much comfort since nobody is under government mandate to label foods properly like they are when it comes to peanuts.

Gluten is normally associated with wheat but it’s not that simple. That’s why proper labeling is very important when it comes to gluten. Gluten can appear in foods in unexpected ways. Flavorings such as caramel, stabilizers and thickeners used in ice cream, ketchup, salad dressings, and many other ingredients can contain gluten depending on how they are made. There’s no way for the customer to know. And just because one bottle of A1 Steak Sauce does not make you sick does not mean the next bottle won’t because the source of caramel in the product might change from a gluten-free source to one that contains gluten. Nothing on the label will change to show the difference. There’s no way for the customer to know unless the maker is required to specifically put gluten or “wheat” on the label.

I don’t know why this is not done–why the FDA does not require gluten warnings on foods.

Americans Get Half Their Calories From Sugar!

Did you know that today’s average American gets half of his or her calories every day from sugar? It’s true. The average American today consumes 160 pounds of sugar per year. A hundred years ago, this figure was 10 pounds per year. This is great for the sugar companies but must be partly to blame for the explosion in obesity in the U.S.A.

Americans have become sugar addicts. Besides Coke and soda pop that’s loaded with sugar (Coke contains something like 10 teaspoons of sugar per can) read the labels in the fruit juice aisle at the market. Nearly all of them are labeled as “fruit drink” or “fruit cocktail” and are loaded with corn syrup. It’s hard to find a bottle that contains just plain fruit juice. Look at the calories on these fruit “juices”. It’s shocking.

Three years ago I was living in a warm climate and took to drinking lots of “fruit juice”. I thought I was doing myself a favor. After all, it said Vitamin C right on the label. But I noticed that I began to gain weight rapidly. I discussed it with a friend and she asked me to do a complete diet inventory, so I did. I discovered that I was consuming 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day, every day, just in “fruit juice”. I stopped that cold and switched to water. For the next two days, my vision was not quite right. A lifelong diabetic friend explained that this was normal because I stopped the huge constant sugar intake so suddenly. He explained that it would take a couple days for my pancreas to adjust to the new sugar levels. He was right. Since then I have limited my fruit juice intake to only real juices, not spiked with sugar or corn syrup, and about a glass per day. Lots of water and iced tea make up the rest of my fluid intake.

I was a prime example of the statistic I mentioned above. By quitting the “fruit flavored juice” I dropped nearly 20 pounds, back to my normal weight.

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