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Anecdotes from the Archives: Food of the Future

MIT engineering changed the way we eat.

Food for our space ships! How will it be carried?” asks a 1950s MIT brochure. This was one of the research concerns of MIT’s Department of Food Technology, which was founded in 1944 and dissolved in 1988. A glance around any supermarket reveals products developed by department researchers and alumni: from frozen TV dinners to the microwaves used to heat them, from the freeze-dried strawberries in breakfast cereal to Starburst candies to frozen concentrated orange juice.

By pioneering the application of science and engineering to food processing, MIT scientists changed the way foods are manufactured. Food preservation methods such as canning and dehydration existed long before MIT scientists revolutionized them, but in forms no more sophisticated than a recipe passed down by grandma.

Early MIT food scientists applied microbiology to determine safe canning temperatures and made more-palatable dehydrated milk for the army in World War I. They developed the frozen, precooked foods so prevalent today and experimented with irradiation and techniques to feed the Third World.

Aaron Brody ‘51, PhD ‘57, says he was drawn to the department because it was interdisciplinary: “You had…courses in chemistry, biology, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering.” In food technology classes, undergraduates learned to analyze the oil, salt, sugar, pH, and bacteria in food. Brody has developed, among other things, the process that preserves fresh-cut produce by modifying levels of gases in the package.

For his PhD, Brody designed and built a robotic chewing machine that measured the amount of pressure on the teeth generated by chewing a particular food. This provided the first data of its kind and “sparked a new science of food texture,” he says. The “chewiness of bread and crispness of potato chips, the slickness of ice cream” are elements of taste.

MIT food science had strong ties to industry and to the military. Department scientists worked with food companies from Dow to General Mills to Mars. MIT also helped create portable preserved foods for the U.S. Army and the space program. Following World War II, MIT became a center for food-irradiation studies spearheaded by the army.

MIT researchers held the first patent on the use of radiation to sterilize food. They experimented with x-rays, electric shocks, and gamma rays in hopes of preserving highly perishable food for years without refrigeration. Irradiation research was the department’s primary focus throughout the 1950s, and enthusiasm for the process was high.

A 1951 Popular Mechanics article offered this scenario: “You open an ordinary kitchen closet, haul out a cellophane-wrapped steak, leg of lamb, hamburger or fillet of flounder which you bought two or three years ago.” But MIT researchers were ultimately unable to overcome the off-flavors imparted by the process as well as concerns about toxicity. Irradiation has entered commercial use in recent years, but is used only to kill bacteria on the surface of meats for consumption within a short time–not the long-term preservation that MIT researchers had been seeking.

U.S. policymakers and scientists were concerned about food shortages in the developing world in the 1950s and 1960s, and MIT food scientists worked toward a solution. Nevin Scrimshaw, one of the last to head the department, worked on projects aimed at providing children in poor countries with more protein by making synthetic meats out of algae and ground-up fish. Scrimshaw’s fish protein concentrate research never saw practical application.

The department was eliminated in 1988 as research concerns shifted away from engineering and to nutrition, but MIT food scientists have been a major influence on the way we eat. “People who graduated from MIT in food technology…they’re the all-stars,” says Brody. “They are the guys who led the entire industry for many years.” – By Katie Bourzac, SM ‘04

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