Misadventures in industrial food history
I've been getting lots of interview requests to talk about ice cream lately, which has sent me down some rabbit holes. I've been tracking down ice cream's ancient origins, presidential ice cream history, inventors, and more.
I did a talk last year on ice cream history for Archaeology Now which you can watch here if you want the whole overview of my research thus far.
But in trying to track down details about Augustus Jackson (the "father of ice cream") and Sallie Shadd (the "mother of ice cream") here in the US, I stumbled across this horror on JSTOR: "Ice Cream From Crude Oil," by Edwin E. Slosson, published in Science News-Letter October 2, 1926.
Here's the text (I’ve bolded a few choice passages):
The chemists of America recently celebrated the semi-centennial of their organization with a meeting at Philadelphia. Dr. Edwin E. Slosson, author of "Creative Chemistry," etc., in this article tells of some of the achievements and hopes of modern chemistry as revealed in the sessions.
Ice cream made from crude oil is one of the many marvels forecast by Prof. James F. Norris, president of the American Chemical Society. Edible fats, the same as those in vegetable and animal foods, and other fats equally nutritious but not found in nature, can be obtained by breaking up the molecules of mineral oil and rearranging the atoms to form new compounds.
This cracking process has been applied to petroleum for many years to obtain a larger yield of the gasoline distillate, but the investigations recently carried out by the Petroleum Institute have shown that it is possible to attach oxygen to the cracked molecules and so produce alcohols and acids of all sorts. Aromatics, flower perfumes, fruit flavors, drugs and dyes in infinite variety may be made by such methods. This suggests that petroleum which has hitherto been used for fuel and lubricating may be found in the future to be even more valuable as a source of substances for which man has hitherto been dependent upon the chance bounty of nature. Glycerin, which is not obtained from the decomposition of soap fats, can be produced from petroleum, and transformed into nitroglycerin for dynamite. Synthetic plastics like rubber and bakelite may also be manufactured from the same raw material. It is unfortunate that we should come to realize the possibilities of petroleum only now, when the Government Oil Commission announces that the known oil reserves of the United States will last only six years at the present rate of consumption.
But Dr. Norris has his answer to that objection, for he foresees the utilization of the limitless stores of energy confined within the atom, as manifest in radium.
“When I saw not long ago in the laboratory of Dr. S. C. Lind a tiny drop of colorless oil that had been formed from methane - the chief constituent of natural gas - as a result of the action of this form of energy upon it, I felt a new era in chemistry had dawned,” Dr. Norris said. “That droplet meant a supply of combustible liquid to run our automobiles where petroleum is exhausted. We can make methane from carbon and hydrogen when the supply of natural gas fails us. The sun will always be able to convert carbon dioxide into a form from which we can get back carbon.”
Dr. E. J. Esselen demurs to the suggestion of synthetic ice cream and expressed a preference for the old-fashioned method of feeding the cellulose to a cow. But in his own field Dr. Esselen was quite as radical in his prophecies as Dr. Norris. He goes so far as to surmise that the synthesis of cellulose may some day be accomplished in the factor as it is now in the field from the free raw materials of air and water.
Cellulose, which is the woody stuff of trees and other plants, now requires months or years to grow, but if the chemist once learns how to make it he may turn out a purer product in a few days or hours. Already the first steps toward this achievement have been taken. It has been found possible to make glucose artificially by the action of ultraviolet rays on water and carbon dioxide, that is, on “soda-water.” It is easy to convert cellulose into glucose, and if only we knew how to reverse this reaction synthetic cellulose would be possible, though whether it would be profitable or not remains to be seen.
Wow. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Petroleum products would go on to dominate our everyday lives. Not just with plastics, but also with food additives, notably artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. And while we have certainly expanded our oil reserves globally since the 1920s, peak oil is still an as-yet undealt-with issue, alongside climate change. But the article illustrates both the benefits and dangers of this kind of science.
Someone pointed out yesterday that Soylent Green was set in 2022, and quipped that they would not be consuming any fake meat anytime soon. I laughed, but knowing how some fake meat like Impossible burgers are made (with artificial, not human blood), I had to sympathize.
We’ve already been eating petroleum for a while. The other day I revisited an article I wrote last year on French Dressing, and recalled that the whole reason the FDA was regulating the standard of identity for salad dressings in 1950 was because mineral oil was an increasingly popular substitute for vegetable oils in salad dressing. Odorless, colorless, and flavorless, mineral oil is not digestible by the human body (and therefore is often prescribed as a laxative). For dieters, this seemed ideal! Have delicious salad dressings to perk up your sad raw vegetable diet without the calories! The infamous artificial fat Olestra (a.k.a. Olean) had similar effects, which is why you rarely find it today.
Petroleum products still make it into foods. Petroleum wax is a main ingredient in chewing gum, and edible paraffin wax is often found as a coating for cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, and is even an ingredient in chicken nuggets. You can also see it (along with mineral oil) as an ingredient in some older candy recipes, usually combined with chocolate for dipped candies. Lipstick, toothpaste, and even over the counter pain medications like aspirin also contain petroleum products.
Petroleum is a carbon-based substance, so it’s not beyond the realm of comprehension that we could eat it. But humans generally can’t metabolize foods made from petroleum, which is why that headline about ice cream was such a shock to me. I can only imagine the effects of eating such a product, no matter how it tasted.
About a week ago the Washington Post published a story about ultra-processed foods and their impact on human health. In particular, they looked at how the breakdown of molecules in foods that underwent high-pressure, high-heat environments (like those that make, for instance, cheese puffs) and how the body metabolized them. Because these broken-chain molecules are essentially pre-digested, they can be absorbed by the body right from the stomach into the blood stream - skipping the microbiome in the gut.
Some researchers posit that these ultra-processed foods might be the smoking gun of the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Others remain less convinced. I personally think that, like climate change, obesity is the result of a multitude of issues with modern life, including but not limited to, epigenetic changes, exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the twin stresses of poverty and racism, a disinvestment in pedestrian-friendly architecture, a national chronic lack of sleep (including in children), changes in gut bacteria, changes in the nutritive values of crops through soil depletion and over-irrigating, AND the prevalence and cheapness of ultra-processed foods.
In speaking about ice cream in preparation for a podcast interview today, I talked about the changes in agriculture, technology, and public policy over the course of the 20th century that made our industrial food system today possible. That 1926 article just brought home both the naïve optimism of the past, and also how divorced Western science was (and often still is) from the natural world.
I don’t have any particular message today, other than to share this tidbit of history that I stumbled across and all of the connections to the modern day it made me think about. Here’s more reading if you’re interested in any of the topics I mentioned today:
Alicia Kennedy has written a new book coming out next month called No Meat Required, in which she examines the history of plant-based eating, particularly meat substitutes. She includes a deep-dive into the history behind folks like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger. She also wrote this week on the corporatization of American food.
My globe-trotting friend Tereneh Idia has written about pedestrian-friendly (and un-friendly) architecture across the world.
I’m always interested in reading more from folks who like to take deep dives into complicated topics, so drop your Substack recommendations in the comments!
Until next time, friends.