History of Processed Food

We live in a time when easy-to-eat food is everywhere. Did you ever think about how it came to this? Did you ever wonder about the history of processed food?

History of Processed Food
History of Processed Food

We live in a time when easy-to-eat food is everywhere. Yes, every grocery store but also every department store, every dollar store, every gas station.

Heck, you don’t even have to get out of your car.

Did you ever think about how it came to this?  Did you ever wonder about the history of processed foods?

What is the definition of processed foods?

The Definition of Processed Foods
The Definition of Processed Foods

I could go into a long scientific explanation about changing chemical compounds and how that affects your food. The USDA has more than 15 different words to describe all the ways to make that happen. But who wants that?

Not me, for one. I can feel my eyes glazing over just thinking about it.

I’m going to keep it simple. For what we’re talking about today, the definition for processed foods will be any food that has been modified from its original form to make it ready to eat or easier to prepare and/or store.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to define convenience foods the same way. I’m going to lump ‘em all in together and we can use the terms interchangeably.

When did processed food start to appear in our lives?

The Origin of Processed Foods
The Origin of Processed Foods

When did processed food start? Who invented it?

Many minds go to the Industrial Revolution and how it streamlined mass production but I think it’s safe to assume convenience/processed foods have been around since humans have walked the earth.

It’s always been kind of a “thing” to gather food when it’s in season and find a way to preserve it for later use. Think of smoke-drying meat, root cellars, canning fresh produce or burying ice in the spring to keep it for later in the year.

All of that sounds good and actually quite healthy. So just when did processed foods go awry? When did they go afoul of good nutrition?

Modern Day Comforts – The First Convenience Food

Modern Day Convenience
Modern Day Convenience

I’m not pointing fingers but C. A. Swanson & Sons successfully rolled out something they called TV Brand Frozen Dinners in 1957.

While they didn’t invent the concept, the meals were hugely successful and forever changed the landscape of mealtime. They have been considered to be the first convenience food that was widely used in American homes.

There’s some debate as to who, exactly, at the Swanson factory came up with the plan to market these frosty nuggets of ease but I’m willing to let it go. After all, it would be wrong to blame one overachieving employee for starting America’s Health Crisis, right? Like, I AM right, right?

I think it’s no coincidence that the success of these dinners (and other processed foods) coincided with the fact that the number of supermarkets in this country had doubled in the previous decade.

A wide variety of mass-produced, processed food was available in your very own neighborhood. Modern electrical appliances such as stoves and refrigerator/freezer combos were now commonplace and easy to use.

It’s unlikely that the young housewives of the late 50s grew up with such wonderful modern conveniences so you can imagine why they would embrace this shiny new world of easily prepared meals. You can almost hear it, can’t you? “No more chicken plucking for THIS GIRL!!”

Housewives were not the only ones with an eye on the new trends. Manufacturers were quick (and happy I would imagine) to jump on the bandwagon. They were anxious to cash in on this new food craze, to invent and market new lines of food to fill the need, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. Check out a few of their crazy ads here.

What Are The Effects Of Processed Foods?

The Effects of Processed Foods
The Effects of Processed Foods

We are now in the 3rd generation since the fateful introduction of TV dinners. What are the effects of processed foods? What have we learned?

While we are now well aware of the physical effects that processed convenience food causes, I don’t think we take enough time to consider the REAL reason we’re in the mess we’re in. The social aspects of it.

We are, of course, are a product of our upbringing. It’s Complicated. So much so that even we, as individuals, often don’t know why we do the things we do.

There’s one thing that’s certain. Much of what we know (and do) we learned from our parents. And our parents learned from their parents.

Mom grew up eating the Supermarket Food that her mom embraced so enthusiastically. You know, the pre-plucked chickens and store-bought eggs. Maybe the occasional TV dinner when she begged her mom for a treat.

Then Mom raised you and guess what? She had even more exciting and easy-to-make foods available to her. Spaghetti-O’s and Hot Pockets, Hostess Fruit Pies, Kid Cuisine Meals, Campbell’s Chunky Soup and drive-thrus.

Stop. The. Madness.

It’s no wonder, then, that preparing whole foods has become a foreign concept in our culture.

But we’re not doomed! We can take back our lives and consciously decide to make better choices. Just remember to be kind to yourself in the process and keep in mind that the next generation will learn from YOU.

Please feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts. I look forward to your contributions to this conversation!





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12 Replies to “History of Processed Food”

  1. A subject near and dear to my heart. Something that I feel convicted about eating too much processed foods. Become more apparent when especially having health concerns where this is a warranted fear for causing further health problems so eating healthier is something I need to do. Unfortunate it is convenience that we get into processed food in the first place. Thanks Cynthia for bringing some good ideas to fix my bad eating habits and encouraging the healthier out come.

    1. In this world we live in, it’s difficult to stay away from processed and convenience foods completely, isn’t it? We’re all guilty on that count but the important thing is to be aware and do the best we can! Thanks for your comment!

  2. This is an insightful article. Almost everything I eat and serve is processed. Almost. I know it contains certain ingredients we are better off without. Why do I eat it anyway? It’s cheap. I get much of it from the local food pantry. Keep up the good work with your research!

    1. It’s a tough spot to be in, Cathy. I have used food pantries myself and have many friends that do as well. While they’re an awesome resource, I know you’re tied into what they have available on any particular day. I’ll do some research and try to post some ideas that might be helpful. Good luck to you.

  3. Great post!
    I did not know about the history of processed foods that much before reading this post.
    I try to eat healthy food with very little of it being processed.
    There are so many options for processed foods in every grocery or convenience store. Preparing more food in advance is helpful for me so that I never find myself forced into buying a processed food because it is so convenient.
    I like what you said about the fact that we still have a chance to cook more and eat healthier.
    I will certainly try to cook more and do my part to not embrace the convenience of processed food as much.
    Thanks for the helpful information!

    1. Thank you you for your comments! I like what you said about planning ahead so you aren’t forced into buying convenience foods. Great idea!

  4. While processed food generally gets a bad rep these days, people tend to forget it’s what allowed us to have time for more productive work than agriculture and cooking. It also allowed many people to actually eat healthier diets. Just like antibiotics, food additives, gene manipulation, and many other controversial diet subjects, it’s all about balance. These inventions drive humanity forward but they can turn against us if we give complete freedom to the market as greed will always win. Thanks for the interesting read!

    1. I completely agree that not all processed food is bad. I take full advantage of meats, vegetables and other minimally processed items that are available both in my local grocery store and from local farms. I think we can both agree that we, as a society, have lost track of what we’re putting in our bodies and our version of “healthy” has gone completely off the rails!

  5. Hi Cynthia
    Thanks for sharing your views on the history of processed food. It is not very common in my part of the world, but the time is changing so fast. The metro cities have started the trend of processed food and the result of it is obvious on the health of people. The country side is still using the old methods of eating habits.
    Warm Regards
    Gaurav Gaur

    1. Well, I hope I can, in some small way, help those people who are just being introduced to processed food to not fall into the trap that we have experienced here in the USA!  Thank you for reading!

  6. Good topic as I do eat processed foods as it is easier to get your hands on and is cheaper but I do make some meals from scratch.  This is when I can be bothered. I enjoyed reading about it on your website and I think others will also. It’s a thumb up from me.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments!  We all eat processed foods sometimes…in this busy, busy world, it’s impossible to make everything from scratch.  It’s all about doing the best you can.  

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