ME 120 Final Investigation: The Design of Food

James Yu May 26, 2005

The 20th century revealed many new design issues throughout the industries. Amidst the cacophony of bright lights, fast planes, rich digital multimedia, and instant communication is the lingering tone that was set by the industrial revolution during the 19th century. Marinetti put it best when he said, “Time and space died yesterday.” Truly, we are living at a time where humans have begun to seriously harness the power of technology to manipulate the universe. However, design never occurs in a vacuum. Ettore Sottsass said,“design is a way of discussing life.” I believe he means that the way a civilization designs is indicative to their way of life. In other words, we design who we are. The industrial revolution has shown that we are indeed creatures of efficiency, logic, beauty, and last, but not least, greed. Starting primarily with the textiles industry, we have managed to mechanize, automate, and standardize a vast number of industries. From the time we wake up to the time we turn in for the night, our lives are filled with the results of the revolution. If asked what artifacts would prove to be representative of 20th century achievement, most would respond with a list including the airplane, computer, world wide web, and cell phone. However, many would miss one of the most crucial elements of life: food. Food is one of the only products that become part of the consumer in a literal sense. In fact, the first definition of consume is to take in as food; eat or drink up. This intimate relationship between food and humans places an enormous responsibility on the designer of food products. Food is not like other man-made objects that only make external contact with the consumer. Rather, food is chewed, swallowed, and 1

ingested by the consumer–it penetrates and intermingles with the body. The food industry has changed radically from previous centuries. The idealized farmer is now archaic, replaced by huge corporations. Also, food has not escaped the transformation brought by the industrial revolution. Our cravings for quantity, speed, and accessibility has exploded the food industry into a monster capable of pumping out extraordinary amounts of perfect-looking identical food items. Behind this veil of perfection are designers who bring food from concept to plate. Like other industries, the nature of food design did not come into existence until fairly recent. This paper begins by analyzing the revolution that made processed and packaged foods possible. Next, the motivations behind these foods are reviewed. Then, food as a designed object is considered. Finally, the consequences and changes that have come forth are reviewed.


Harvesting the Revolution

Today, we see a plethora of food choices in our supermarkets–more than anyone would have dreamed of in the 19th century. This is primarily due to two things: (1) the growth in the quantity of food produced by farms and (2) the development of newer and more efficient ways to preserve food. Before the 19th century, farmers grew very little crops compared to typical yields today. Normally, the local farmer would take his surplus food to the town and sell it to grocers, who would then sell the goods to the local people. The farming trade in those days were simple and self-sustaining. Farmers typically ate off the land. However, something began to change in the wake of the industrial revolution. As the farmer started using mechanized tools for harvesting and reaping, he became more efficient. It is estimated that in 1880, it would take around 20 man-hours to harvest an acre of land. By the 1931, it took only about 6.1 man-hours [1]. Crop yields grew and individual farm lands expanded. The farmer now faced a dilemma. The tremendous growth in crops has drastically driven down price. Farmers had too sell more crops to compensate, which caused two crucial events to happen: 1. A large number of crops needed to be sold to gain a profit. 2. Farmers began to sell to a wider range of customers outside of his local area. These two factors exposed the farmers to the flux of national and international selling markets. It also forced farmers to focus on one type of crop. 2

Eventually, farmers could barely make a living on their trade alone. Today, agricultural GDPs exhibit staggeringly low figures worldwide, even though most of the world’s people are involved in farming. In America, giant corporations have taken over the farming lands–letting the local farmers do the grunt work. Food production rates have exploded, leaving some farmers with surplus crops. Many farmers can barely make a living from farming. In parallel with the farming revolution, better ways of preserving foods were developed. Canning was developed in the 19th century. Freeze drying was invented in 1909, and the large use of refrigeration also began in the early 20th century. In 1911, the first commercially available refrigerator was put on the market by GE. Freezing is superior to some of the older techniques like smoking, pickling, and drying because it can be utilized on a wider range of food products. Foods could be shipped to a wider audience since they could be preserved longer. This meant that people and corporation began to have access to non-local foods. Options for food preparations widened. By the late 19th century, the stage was set for a new kind of food production– packaged foods that would be tasty, relatively non-perishable, ready to eat, and above all, convenient for the consumer. All of it would be designed by food scientists and corporate cooks, replacing the local moms and pops.


Convenience in a Wrapper

My fiance is always wary of processed foods. She avoids eating anything that comes from a can, package, or sealed container. This is partly due to her upbringing– her mother would avoided using artificially processed foods when cooking for her household. Personally, I grew up in a household where processed foods were used frequently. Many times I find myself arguing with my fiance to simply buy the canned soups instead of making it from scratch. This is an example of the fact that our personal tastes develop young, and stay with us throughout our lives. Americans today eat more processed foods than ever before. The industrial revolution sparked a surge in the number of processed foods available. As a result, we are eating more fats, sugars, and salts–many of the elements that are required to preserve and flavor processed foods. In the past, the cooks (or food designers) of the household was either yourself, or someone whom you had a close personal connection to. In general, you knew exactly what went into the foods you eat. Now, we have bypassed the local cook and have let the corporations do the cooking. Many of us cannot even pronounce all the ingredients that go into a typical instant food. 3

The major reason for the acceptance of processed food is convenience. As our society becomes more busy, the task of cooking is left at the bottom of the priority list. Also, the mother was the cook in the majority of households before the 1960’s. This changed when women started to pursue outside jobs to provide more income for the household [3]. It’s hard to even avoid processed foods anymore. Supermarket aisles are inundated with the bright colors and fanfare of packaged foods. Vending machines that offer these foods at a click of the button swamp offices, event venues, and even hospitals. Before the 19th century, the only processed foods available were simple preserved items that involved smoking, drying, salting, or pickling. Now, we can get processed foods in any cuisine, from macaroni and cheese to roasted lamb. Advertisement for foods have also grown exponentially with the industrial revolution. Simply driving down the highway involves various billboards that visually pollute your field of view with pictures of tasty fries and burgers. Some companies have even gone so far as to suggest feeding babies with soft drinks [2]. There is no escape from the effects of processed foods, even if you avoid eating them. Foods that once took hours to prepare can now be cooked in seconds in the microwave [3]. The convenience is very tempting, and have resulted in a plethora of people sitting down to a meal nuked in the microwave. But how could processed foods possibly be made tasty? Through trial and error (and a little food science), the processed foods industry have shaped a new kind of food: one that can be quickly cooked and be tasty at the same time.


Food is Designed

During a recent trip to the supermarket, I noticed a new item in the bread section: sliced and ready-to-eat French toast (seen in Figure 1). I found the concept of wrapped French toast quite amusing. Bread is a very old invention, dating back to the Neolithic era, and has been a staple in European diet since 1000BC [5]. Modern bread was born in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Before then, people ate bread that was baked up to a week ago. Soft, sliced, fresh tasting, and pearly white bread were the privileges of kings [1]. French toast was also a fairly recent invention, and is speculated to have been introduced in the 18th century. In America, French toast is usually dipped in an egg mixture and pan cooked with cinnamon and other spices, and is served with maple syrup on top. This incarnation of bread doesn’t hold well without refrigeration. And even then, it loses its tasty texture and flavor quickly. 4

Figure 1: Safeway’s sliced French toast. However, when I bit into the ready-to-eat French bread, I was surprised by how closely it matched the flavors and textures of real freshly-made French toast. I actually tasted the maple syrup and the creaminess of the bread. On the outside, it looked like a plain piece of toast. The flavor masters at Safeway have somehow construed my senses into tasting traditionally made French toast. We have come a long way from the primordial pastes consisting of grains and water. The tastes of processed foods are generally made in one of two ways: extracting natural flavors from a substance, or creating a flavor through the use of chemicals. The extraction method could be as simple as taking samples from a banana, to finding new and unknown flavors. In fact, flavor scientists travel around the world in search of exotic plants, fruits, and other foods [6]. The hope is that some day these particular flavors may be used in a popular new food product. The creation of flavors through chemicals is a unique mixture of science and art. On a typical tour of flavor companies, one would see a plethora of brown bottles that would emanate well known flavors in food products [6]. Without flavor science, processed foods would never have become successful [2]. It is these flavors and textures that tempts us to eat processed foods. This is not unlike the aesthetic curves exhibited by a modern piece of furniture, or the grand forms of a skyscraper creating a magnificent skyline. The food scientists are the industrial designers of the gustatory world. The flavor scientists are no longer the home cook, but are the professional degree-bearing men and women in corporations. 5


The Impact

There are three major impacts resulting from the industrial food revolution: (1) Convenience, (2) Food Design, and (3) Health Issues.



Marinetti’s vision was a world of power, modernity, and speed. A futurist’s world also needs a futurist’s food. I believe that the processed foods of today exemplify the lifestyle of Marinetti’s vision quite well with their speed of preparation for the futurist on the go.


Food Design

As stated before, the design of food was relegated only to the family cook or restaurants before the mass production of processed foods. Recipes were handed down from generation to generation. This is no longer the case for processed foods. The recipes for these foods are unlike traditional recipes–they are researched and developed in a lab, many times using unnatural ingredients that cannot be found on a farm. Before the advent of processed foods, you either (1) knew how to cook, or (2) knew someone who could cook for you, or (3) are rich and could hire cooks. Now, anyone can live without these three criteria and eat off the processed foods aisle. These are the IKEA of foods, allowing the customer to easily “assemble” the edible items at home.


Health Issues

Issues with the healthfulness of processed foods is crucial. In the past, food poisoning due to a particular food item was confined to local gatherings. But, now that foods can be processed and shipped anywhere, contaminated batches of food can infect millions of people [2]. This is further exacerbated by the horrible and flagrant health infractions by some food industries like the notorious beef producers. Also, processed foods have been criticized with being too fatty, salty, and generally unhealthy to consume on a daily basis. There are numerous accounts that link processed and fast foods to obesity, heart disease, and cancer. As a nation, we pay a price for convenience.




The human race has reached a point where speed and efficiency rule supreme. Food design has risen in combination with new preservation and production techniques that arose in the early 20th century. Cooking, one of the most time consuming tasks, has been reduced to a mere push of a button. The design of these foods focuses on the consumer’s convenience factor, and it is these food scientists and flavorists that provide the technology and knowledge possible to deploy such appealing and instant foods. The consequences are many and diverse. The most notable is the rise of a new kind of cook–one that designs food with an eye for efficiency and mass production. Along with this, we have begun to consume foods differently. We take many foods for granted, especially fast and packaged foods. Since no effort was taken to prepare these foods, no effort is taken to really understand the foods. This stands in strict contradiction to the past, where people had a strong connection to local foods and traditions. This shift of traditions and consumption is not unlike other revolutions (like mass furniture production) that occurred earlier–changing the way we make, view, and consume foods forever.

1. Giedion, Siegfried. Mechanization Takes Command. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 1969. 2. Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. 3. Lambert, Craig. “The Way We Eat Now.” Harvard Magazine, May–June 2004. 4. Mariani, John. The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. New York: Lebhar-Friedman, 1999. 5. “Food”, “Bread”, “French Toast”, “Farming”. 6. Ohr, Linda. “FLAVOR CREATIONS: Science Conjures the Essence of Flavors.” Prepared Foods, 2001.