A refrigerator filled with fruits, vegetables and other food

How refrigeration revolutionized the world

Three-quarters of everything on the American plate is shipped and refrigerated —which is pretty revolutionary. Nicola Twilley, co-host of Gastropod, joins host Krys Boyd to discuss how just a century ago we relied on local butchers and farmers – which could mean a feast or famine diet – and how refrigeration hit the scene and completely changed how we eat. Her book is “Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves.”

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    Frostbite Podcast Full.wav

    Krys Boyd [00:00:00] In previous centuries, every city of any size had to have a slaughterhouse in a fairly central location, and animals mostly walked there themselves. You can imagine the noise, the smell, the runoff, and the street congestion caused by, say, a herd of cattle proceeding down Main Street and understand why these facilities were not pleasant neighbors. But meat production had to be local, because the moment an animal was butchered, there was a race against the clock to get it cooked or preserved before it spoiled. When we learned how to keep things refrigerated, first with ice, then with machines, the shape of modern cities and indeed modern life was radically transformed. From KERA in Dallas, this is think I’m Kris Boyd. All of us have benefited from this refrigerated world. It frees us from the dangerous cycles of feast and famine that most of humankind once endured every year. And when we conceive of refrigerators as necessary but not very exciting home appliances, we are seeing just the tip of an enormous, world changing iceberg that is the cold chain. Nicola Twilley is co-host of the podcast gastropod, and she explores the fascinating history of chilling food in her new book, Frostbite How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet and Ourselves. Nicola, welcome back to think.

    Nicola Twilley [00:01:18] Thanks for having me. It’s so good to be back.

    Krys Boyd [00:01:21] This all started for you because you became obsessed with what is called the cold chain, which I’m going to assume most of us have never even thought much about, despite its critical importance in our lives. And the refrigerated warehouse is this remarkable, like missing link between farm or factory and market?

    Nicola Twilley [00:01:39] Exactly. This, obsession for me started a while back when everything in the food world was all farm to table. You started seeing it on restaurants, in newspapers, farm to table this, farm to table that. And everyone was talking and writing about the farm where the food was grown, how it was grown. And I just got really hung up on the two. What happened in between the farm and the table? And I realized there’s this entire artificial winter that we have built for our food to live in and move around in, and we never see it. You know, people were saying, going into slaughterhouses, going into, you know, livestock feeding, like the CAFOs, the, the for the industrial agriculture. They were reporting on all of that and showing us what it looked like, where our food was grown. But no one was going into a refrigerated warehouse or a banana ripening room, or a juice tank farm or a subterranean cheese cave. And I decided that I would go take a look at those. I was really just curious at first.

    Krys Boyd [00:02:46] What kind of safety training did you have to complete just to visit one of these giant refrigerated warehouses?

    Nicola Twilley [00:02:52] So I decided that the best way to figure out what it was like inside these refrigerated warehouses was to try working there. So I persuaded one of the biggest, refrigerated warehouse companies in the world, company called Americold, to let me just work a few shifts at their Southern California warehouses. And it turns out to be an incredibly challenging job. Warehouse work is already one of the most dangerous professions in America. Refrigeration makes everything more dangerous. The floor is coated with ice crystals, so slips and trips are common. And just the cold. This is the thing I hadn’t really thought of. But cold slows everything down. That’s how it preserves food. But it also slows down us humans. You know people. Mountaineers have a term for it. They call it cold stupid because you you just your thought processes congeal in the cold and you might think, oh, come on, like that can’t be real. There’s science. There it is. It is a well known thing in colder parts of the ocean. Animals, you know, fish are, are easier to catch because they’re so slow and their reaction time slows down. So it’s a known phenomenon. And when your reaction time is slowed down, but you’re operating forklift traps and doing this dangerous warehouse work, that’s when accidents happen. So yeah, I went through a whole safety training process and a whole gear process to try and keep me warm. There’s a whole sort of set of clothing they put you in to work in these harsh environments.

    Krys Boyd [00:04:28] What is it like walking around in a warehouse sized freezer? Like what does it look like? What does it smell like?

    Nicola Twilley [00:04:37] It’s it’s amazing. It’s a whole different world. So first of all, it’s perpetually there’s blue gray gloom. So that’s because lighting, you know, uses energy and also actually emits heat. So the lights are kept very, very low except for the blue lights on a forklift truck that sort of warn you it’s coming. The floor. It. From all the ice crystals. There’s something called the smell of cold. Everyone who works in refrigerated warehouse knows it. People are bad at describing it. It’s sort of metallic. Sort of. It’s almost impossible to describe. But then each of the different rooms has their own smell. So if you’ve worked in the frozen pizza section, my God, you will never feel the same way about, you know, pepperoni tombstone pizza ever again. The smell sticks to your clothes for weeks, so that’s interesting. Light and sound both move more slowly in the cold. So that’s another thing where everything seems sort of muffled. It takes longer to reach you. You’re reacting more slowly. Equipment has to be designed specially to work in the cold. Tape doesn’t stick as well. Rubber gets brittle. Engine oil gets clogged up and sticky. And there’s just so much food. You know, you go to the store and you see more frozen pizza than you’ll eat in a year. Say you go into a refrigerated warehouse and you see more frozen pizza than you could ever eat in a lifetime. It sort of makes it really real. The scale at which America eats.

    Krys Boyd [00:06:15] We all understand that cool temperatures keep food from spoiling for a longer amount of time, but like, why is that the case? How does cold interfere with the decomposition of organic matter?

    Nicola Twilley [00:06:25] Yeah, it’s just really it’s a time machine. It slows things down. So for meat and dairy, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to eat it before the microbes and fungi that want to eat it have a chance. And if you can slow down their metabolism, which is what cold does, then you buy yourself time to eat it. Now, if you’re talking about frozen those temperatures, you get an extra layer of preservation because now your water has turned into ice crystals and that has a preservative effect as well. Taking away the available water is one of the best methods of food preservation. Because you make it, you make it inhospitable to bacteria and fungi. That’s why for millennia, humans have sort of dried food or smoked that you take a, you know, coffee, you’re taking away the oxygen that they need. So that’s how it works for produce. What you’re really doing, produce is alive. People don’t think about this, but when you harvest a banana, say it’s still breathing and it has a certain number of breaths before it dies, basically, one produce, industry, lady said to me, listen, we’re in the business of selling a dying product, and it’s a race against time to get it where it needs to be before it dies. Cold slows down how fast the produce breathes. That’s basically what’s going on. It’s kind of like hibernation. So when you put an apple in a fridge, it’s sort of sedated. It breathes less quickly. And that then sort of just buys you time to get it from A to B or to, you know, if it’s you’ve harvested all your apples in the fall, but you want to be able to sell people an apple in June, using cold. And also people use atmospheric blends for, for apples. Then you can sell it in June as a fresh apple.

    Krys Boyd [00:08:18] What do we know about how early our ancestors might have realized that cold storage could help preserve food, even if they didn’t necessarily understand the mechanisms by which it happened?

    Nicola Twilley [00:08:28] Humans would have figured this out almost as soon as humans noticed anything. They’re really early Neolithic. Paleolithic examples of humans using caves to store bones for later consumption. The bone marrow. The cave is a sort of natural refrigerator. It’s it’s cooler in there. There’s good evidence that in places where there was snow and ice, they would dig pits and fill them with snow and ice to store their that, you know, imagine you you, bring down a wooly mammoth that is more than you can eat in one go. So using cold where they could find it goes back a long way. Being able to control cold is incredibly recent.

    Krys Boyd [00:09:15] It is remarkable how many of the foods we love best because they taste good were invented for practical rather than esthetic reasons. Like we have cheese today because ancient cows produced more fresh milk than people could drink right away.

    Nicola Twilley [00:09:30] It is. It’s incredible. The history of food preservation is us developing delicious things out of pure desperation. So, I mean, jams and jellies, cheese is one of the greatest examples. It’s been described as milk’s bid for immortality, which I love. But, you know, there’s an entire flavor palette of delicious things. Smoked, fermented. Spicy. Salted. Sweet that. Are the things, the flavors we love. And that is a flavor palette of preservation. That is humans desperately trying to stop bacteria and microbes from eating our food before we can.

    Krys Boyd [00:10:11] Most of us think of canning food as a pretty retro way of preserving it, but it turns out the technology was really only perfected a couple of centuries ago, and the point was keeping Napoleon’s army fit.

    Nicola Twilley [00:10:23] Yeah, the military has often been sort of the leader in food preservation breakthroughs, because for most of human history, preserving food was important across the seasons. But you were living in in an area that had food year round. You weren’t in a city where food had to be brought to you. You could go hunt. Yeah, you might be short of fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter, but preserving was sort of a hedge against the seasons rather than a how am I going to find food to eat? There is no food here. The military was different and Napoleon had the largest army in the world at the time, and it was just proving a real limitation to his military success. How to feed these guys. Traditionally, an army would have fed off the land, but his army was so big that there just wasn’t enough food they needed to bring it with them, how to do that? And so he prompted this competition and a delightful jam maker, who specialized in sort of putting up fruit and creating these delightful confections, from from fruit and sugar to preserve them. He thought, well, what if I could use the same sort of technology but for meals? And he started out experimenting. He used old champagne bottles, which is so glamorous. You don’t think of when you’re opening a can of beans for dinner? You don’t think about this. This technology got its origin in champagne bottles, and started preserving beef stews and all sorts of delicious French dishes. Green peas fresh from the pod and, won the prize for this new preservation technology. His wife left him, and he died absolutely broke. But that’s the story of Canning.

    Krys Boyd [00:12:07] We should note that while today we romanticize like the olden days when people ate only locally grown foods and fresh foods, diets could be really monotonous. And late winter and early spring could be dangerous. People starve while waiting for crops to produce.

    Nicola Twilley [00:12:23] Certainly. I mean, it’s always really hard to know exactly what people ate in the past because people didn’t think it was worth writing down. You know, it’s the texture of everyday life. But from what we know, it does seem that particularly in this sort of hungry season, when you’re getting towards the end of winter, but spring hasn’t come yet. The chickens haven’t started laying until we figured out electric lighting. Eggs were a seasonal treat for the spring, so in that phase, that’s when you get the early onset of scurvy, not full blown scurvy. But historians do estimate that most people would have been what they call pre score buttock at that point. So kind of like pre-diabetic. You’re on the road to it. And then you can imagine the sort of excitement, the frenzy almost when the first green shoots start coming through. And you’re going to be able to get that vegetable content. You need so much at that point. And there was monotony. People used to complain like the endless coleslaw they called it, because think about it, the root veggies, they’re the ones that survive the best. And so you’re having coleslaw at lunch and dinner for months on end when all of the other veggies have run out. So it definitely monotony. You couldn’t go to the store and get a strawberry in winter. There was excitement, wild excitement when steamships and railways started to change all of that, and people could sometimes get a fresh orange in winter on the East Coast. It was it was like a lottery ticket. It was incredible.

    Krys Boyd [00:13:56] Nicola, how did the ice industry become so important, at least initially, for wealthy people who could pay enough to patronize it?

    Nicola Twilley [00:14:05] So the ice industry is an interesting thing because it goes back away. Even, you know, ancient Romans were having snow brought down from the mountains to chill their wine or, you know, serve their snails on a bed of ice. But it was purely for the elite. And they’re, you know, they’re there’s no doubt that, the average person on the street would never have experienced that sensation of having something cold, to eat or drink. And so it wasn’t until a high school dropout from Boston came up with this scheme that everyone thought was completely nuts to ship ice around the world to the hot places, from the cold places like New England where he lived, that suddenly people began to get the experience that we take for granted of having ice cream or an ice drink in summer. What happened was his family had an ice house on their estate in New England. They were used to storing winter ice from the lakes. When it froze over in these structures. And it would last, you know, stacked. Well, you you get, you lose some ice to melt, but you can keep ice throughout the summer. He was used to that luxury. He went to Cuba with his brother who was ill. It was a little kind of convalescent vacation. Get some sun. And they suffered mightily in the heat as New Englanders that were want to do. And he said, wouldn’t these people love it if they could have an ice drink right now? I’m going to bring them ice. And everyone thought he was completely bananas, but he figured out how to do it. I mean, it’s a very long and, and challenging story. He goes bankrupt three times. There are these diary entries. They still have his papers at Yale, and, and the diary entries, just have the word anxiety printed in all caps repeatedly. But he figured out how to do it, and he turned ice into a global industry. New England ice was being shipped off as far afield as India. And that was really the first time that people thought, oh, you know, the new cold could preserve food. They just didn’t think it could happen at scale in this kind of globalized way. And once Frederik Tudor, this, this high school dropout, showed that it could be done. That’s when people started to think, well, cold is really interesting. We should learn how to figure out figure out how to make it ourselves, make machines that can make cold rather than relying on, you know, the lakes that freeze over in the winter.

    Krys Boyd [00:16:55] So we’re going to get to that in just a moment. But I want to ask, like, you know, in the 19th century, you know, thanks to Frederick Tudor, ice was temporarily considered this valuable national commodity, especially for the United States. Does this explain why, even today, Americans are known for, like, blithely icing down foods and drinks that Europeans might still leave at room temperature?

    Nicola Twilley [00:17:16] Absolutely. At the time, you know, the fact that most of the northern half of the U.S., the lakes and rivers do freeze in the winter, that was seen as this incredible national resource, like Saudi oil is today. People were like, gosh, the U.S. is just, awash in ice. It’s, and Americans were used it profligate, like, you hear Europeans come to the U.S. and and they marvel at, you know, these glittering chunks of ice in the water and the drinks and ice cream being served, even the poorest people being able to have ice cream. And they just can’t believe it because it’s seen as so decadent and elite back home. So it is definitely the origins of the American sort of obsession with, with all things iced, which, like you say, is still true today. Water is not necessarily served ice in Europe. And for an American, that’s just an abomination.

    Krys Boyd [00:18:22] So shipping ice around the world worked pretty well as far as it goes. But it, you know, couldn’t get everywhere. How was mechanical refrigeration invented?

    Nicola Twilley [00:18:33] Very slowly and with a lot of explosions. It was, you know, how these things happen in science and technology. A lot of people are working on it. People had an idea for how cold might be created by using these volatile chemicals that evaporate quickly. But they hadn’t figured out how to actually turn that into a machine that reliably produced ice. And a few different people came up with prototypes. There’s the Florida doctor, there’s the Connecticut engineer, the person who sold the first refrigerating machine, the you know, that really commercialized this technology. First was an Australian and Australian journalist, of all things. And, he had noticed that when he wiped, you know, he was printing a newspaper outside of Brisbane in the summer and it gets very hot and the ink would smudge, and so he would wipe ether on his tight face. You know, the metal kind of the, the type that was laid out to to go through the printing presses and that would cool it off enough to allow the ink not to smudge. And he took that insight. He set himself up in a cave near the, it’s like a skunkworks situation near a local river. He nearly went blind from, one of the explosions. Things. Things blow up regularly because these chemicals that do provide that cooling effect, because they evaporate so readily, they are usually also explosive, still today. So it’s a it’s a common theme in the history of refrigeration is people blowing themselves up. But he finally managed to build a working refrigeration machine and he sold it to two breweries, one in Australia and one in London. And so we have Australia and Australian journalist and beer to thank for the dawn of mechanical refrigeration.

    Krys Boyd [00:20:32] I hadn’t realized the Civil War was a major reason for the spread of cooling technologies. How did union blockades drive refrigeration development in the American South?

    Nicola Twilley [00:20:43] This is interesting. Once again, you know, war is a great spur to technological development. And what had happened was the South was cut off from the ice from the north during the Civil War, and they had come to depend on it. You know, in a generation, people had sort of got addicted to being able to cool things down. And especially if you think about in the hospitals in summer and, and these soldiers without any means of cooling anything. So the South was doing anything it could to get hold of some ice. And one of those things was smuggling in these brand new ice, making machines and setting them up. So it was actually this desperate need for ice that sort of gave an impetus to turning to machines, because the North wasn’t, wasn’t shipping its natural ice down south. It’s funny, there was this period, I mean, about 50 years long, maybe even a little longer, where natural ice and the and the these early machines that made ice sort of existed side by side. And the machines were expensive and unreliable, and you wouldn’t use them if you had access to natural ice. But it took these circumstances where you needed the machines to provide the investment that then made the machines better and eventually kind of beat out natural ice. I mean, it’s surprisingly late. Even in the early 1900s. There are skyscrapers in New York City, and still more people were using natural ice there than machine made ice.

    Krys Boyd [00:22:26] Okay, I mentioned in my introduction, Nicola, big cities, of course, have existed since ancient times. Keeping them fed was a challenge before rapid transportation and modern infrastructure. And you had these slaughterhouses in the middle of town, but then came railroads and steamships that made transportation easier. So cattle could be raised on the plains but shipped live to the East Coast. Even that, though, was not the peak of efficiency. Right. Because somebody was paying to ship the whole animal rather than just the parts that could be sold. And along comes this guy named Gustavus Swift. What what was the opportunity he spotted to change the way things were done?

    Nicola Twilley [00:23:02] He’s another New Englander, actually. And again, not to play into stereotypes, but he was incredibly frugal. This is the man who was known for pinching every penny. And he he moved to Chicago. He became he had, you know, his family were butchers and had worked in that field for generations. And so he set himself up in Chicago shipping live cattle, like you say, to New York City in these big. Metropolises on the East Coast. Boston. Philadelphia. And it just niggled at him. The terrible waste of shipping an entire steer when only you know a half of it, say, is going to be edible. The rest of it is is waste, and you’re paying to ship it. It drove him nuts. And so he sunk a considerable amount of time, money and effort into figuring out how to ice a rail car and, again, innumerable problems making the technology work. So many loads of meat would arrive and just be dumped straight in the river because they had gone off. Oh that’s nice. Well said. Before the EPA, and so, huge challenges. But he kept at it and he figured it out. And then, then once he’d figured it out how to ice the rail cars successfully. Well, the the railway said, well, no, we’re not carrying your dead meat. We have everything set up to carry these live cattle and we get paid more because guess, guess what? We’re shipping all that waste, but we’re getting paid by the pound. So, no, no, we’re not going to ship your, your iced dead meat railcars. And so he had to go with an upstart Canadian railway that shipped that north of the border. He had to buy icing stations, and then he had to convince people to buy dead meat. It was called the dead meat trade. This is a weird thing to us because it’s like, of course it’s dead. It’s. But at the time, people thought that meat to be fresh should have been alive, you know, until really recently and then slaughtered. And then you ate it. His meat had been slaughtered in some previous, you know, couple of weeks earlier. So it was dead meat. And people, you know, just were like, good Lord, no, I’m not eating some two week old steak. Not if I can help it. That’s disgusting. It’s not fresh. And that’s one of the most interesting things about the history of refrigeration is at first. And you still see this happening in parts of the world where there isn’t a cold chain. People just are not into the idea. They suspect it. They don’t believe it can be fresh, that it can be healthy. They, you know, what is this sort of zombie technology that can make something look as though it was slaughtered yesterday, but it wasn’t. It was slaughtered two weeks ago. Six weeks ago, you know, a year ago. So. But he he triumphed. Honestly, what really made the difference was it was a lot cheaper because he had the huge savings from not shipping all the waste. And get this, it’s so clever. He’s the one who’s sort of responsible for the, the saying, you know, using every, every part of the pig but the squeal because he figured if he did all the slaughtering in Chicago in one centralized location, he could monetize the byproducts. So suddenly you have enough, you know, blood, fat, everything else in one place to be making, you know, detergent and all the things fertilizer and all the things that don’t make any sense when one butcher is butchering for their customers. But do when you are butchering thousands of cattle a day and sending that meat out into the world to the customers pre kind of sliced and diced. So that’s how he made his money. And because of that, the price of meat on the in the East Coast cities plummeted. And people found that very attractive. So they overcame their revulsion.

    Krys Boyd [00:27:18] In defense of people who were a little bit freaked out initially by the dead meat trade in anything refrigerated. Truly being fresh. I mean, many more people used to get sick from contaminated foods. Dying of food poisoning was not an abstract worry for most people. How did Polly Pennington help folks accept that cold storage could be safe and effective?

    Nicola Twilley [00:27:41] Holly Pennington is. I mean, a rock star. Everyone should know about her. She’s sort of the mother of refrigeration. She’s this fabulous lady who fell in love with chemistry. Reading a textbook in a library as a kid. Managed to finagle her way into first an undergraduate, then a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, despite the fact that they wouldn’t let in women and they wouldn’t give her an actual degree. They only gave her a certificate of proficiency. And then, because no one would hire a female chemist, she sort of set up her own lab in the city of Philadelphia. And then what happened is you’re right. So at the time, people were suspicious of refrigerated food, and they were right to be because people didn’t know how to use it. There was this sense that, like, refrigeration was magic. You could put the milk out all day, and then if it didn’t sell, you could just refrigerate, refrigerate it overnight, put it out again the next day, and bingo, good as new. No one, really knew how to keep food safe. In cold storage. They were just, like, great cold storage. Keeps it fresh. Clearly, this will work. In any circumstances. I mean, there’s one headline from a Buffalo newspaper at the time that I love. There is no death, only cold storage. And that was. That was the attitude so poorly Pennington comes into this situation. The federal government had just passed the first food safety laws, the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906. And the man in charge of enforcing that, Harvey Washington Wiley, has these people coming to him saying, hey, this turkey is being refrigerated for a decade. Is it safe? And he didn’t know. No one knew. No one had done the science to figure out how do you store food in the cold safely? And so he hired Polly again. The civil service didn’t hire women at the time. He ended her for the exam using just her initials. And by the time anyone figured out that she was a woman, she had just kind of put on her divided skirt and got to work. And she is the one who figured out how to make refrigeration safe. She did field work. She did lab work. She rode around the country in refrigerated trail, train cars, measuring the temperature of chickens every so many miles. She and her team, she hired a team, including a bunch of women, to just work out what were the rules for storing food in the cold safely. And in a couple of decades, she had managed to turn that fear around. She had basically made refrigerated foods safe, and she made people trust it because of that. And her her legacy is really the fact that today we think food isn’t safe if it hasn’t been refrigerated. It’s a 180 degree flip in attitude from people 100 years ago. And that’s Polly Pennington’s legacy.

    Krys Boyd [00:30:44] Nicola. Of course, these days we expect to find fresh produce, fresh refrigerated produce in supermarkets almost regardless of season. Somebody else grows it and harvests it and gets it to market for us to buy. I have never thought, though, about the fact that, like different kinds of produce need vastly different conditions to ripen it.

    Nicola Twilley [00:31:04] Yeah, I hadn’t either until I went down this rabbit hole for the book, but produced. You need to think about it like a rock star. They each have their own writer. They need very specific conditions. And so what suits a banana is not going to be what suits an apple. And it actually varies by different varieties. So yeah they have very specific requirements as to temperature. And then also the sort of a range of additional treatments that get applied. So for example a banana that can only be refrigerated when it’s in what fruit people call its green life, I it’s not ripe yet. So they harvest bananas unripe. They’re green. They’re hard. They ship them under refrigeration. That part is fine. You have to get the temperature right. But you know, the banana is relatively sturdy at this point, and then no one wants to buy them like that. So what they do is they gas them with this plant hormone called ethylene, which is a fascinating chemical, is the most made organic chemical on Earth, but it’s also a plant hormone sprayed on a field of pineapples, and they all burst into bloom. But what it does is it tells the banana that it’s time to become ripe. And that is a process that is choreographed to match supply and demand. So you ripen bananas. You can tweak the temperature and the amount of ethylene and to get it exactly right, so that you have, a shipping container full of bananas ready to go out to the store exactly when people want it. And it’s this incredible sort of finely tuned process. The thing that always blows me away is salad bags. Those, you know, the you go to the store and you buy, like mixed greens in a bag. Just looks like a plastic bag. No, it’s an incredibly advanced respiratory apparatus that is delivering exactly the right amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapor into those leaves to keep them breathing as slowly as possible. That that plastic that you just toss away when you finish the salad. It is made up of these layers, carefully designed layers of semi-permeable membrane that are allowing the passage of gases back and forth in this precisely tailored amount to keep your lettuce leaves alive. So you think it’s a bag of salad? It’s actually this high tech, you know, breathing apparatus for prolonging the life of salad. At least that was the thing I took away. You know, you hear about these Silicon Valley billionaires and their whole, you know, wanting to be immortal and, you know, doing all these crazy things to try and live forever, the things we do to our produce, to make it live forever, make, make Silicon Valley billionaires look perfectly reasonable.

    Krys Boyd [00:33:53] Apple’s don’t live forever, but apples that you might find on the grocery store shelf that are sold as fresh might be as much as ten months old.

    Nicola Twilley [00:34:02] Oh yeah, it can be coming up to its first birthday. And I mean, think about it. We know when apples are in season, and yet we happily go to the store and, you know, this time of year, June, July and buy, fresh Washington State Apple. Well, it can’t be fresh off the tree. I think most people just don’t think about that. But yes, apples are were one of the earliest, items of produce to have their whole kind of life extension protocol figured out. It’s very intricate. It’s to do with temperature, but it also to do with the the atmospheric blend. And what you get are these controlled atmosphere warehouses the most high tech? The apples themselves are controlling the atmosphere. So they’ll be like a box of apples. That’s like the the canary in the coal mine, honestly. And by what they’re breathing in and what they’re breathing out, that sets the atmosphere for the rest of the warehouse. So the apples are controlling their own atmosphere to live longer, and they take the oxygen down really low. It’s sort of a balancing act because take it too low and the apple dies and starts to ferment, and you can lose a whole warehouse. So that hence why having the apple sort of control its own environment is such a breakthrough. But they take it down to, you know, point 5%, whereas the oxygen in the air normally is at 21%. So these are these are deadly environments for humans. But for apples, they make it breathe really, really slowly and last even longer. And then of course, you get this whole process where apple breeders are breeding apples, new varieties so that they do really well in storage. So these days, a new apple won’t hit the market unless it is able to be stored. And older varieties, you know, some of the ones you’ll see at the farmers market, they don’t respond well to this controlled atmosphere storage. And so they aren’t, you know, the apples of commerce.

    Krys Boyd [00:36:03] If we travel to, say, Europe, it’s impossible not to notice that most households there have much smaller refrigerators than are typical in U.S. kitchens. Why do we have such enormous machines?

    Nicola Twilley [00:36:16] It is an interesting phenomenon. The US fridge is substantially larger than European fridges. Fascinatingly, you know, the French door fridge, the double door fridge that is so trendy in France, they call that the American door fridge. But. But yes, ours are much, much bigger. And often people have 2 or 3. It comes down to, I think, the way in which refrigeration has sort of changed our whole supply chain. So previously, you know, people would have shopped on a daily basis for perishable goods. Once women started going out to work, which again, in the US they did earlier than in many other countries. Our refrigerator kept food for two days, three days, gradually a week. Then you start to get this whole sort of trend towards out of town grocery stores, and you can go in your car so you can carry more and get more perishable foods. Now you only need to shop once a week. It sort of has this knock on effect where everything just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and you just store more food at home. Problem, of course, is that that ability to kind of have a grocery store is where the food in your home leads to incredible amounts of food waste. But you can see why it happened because it’s convenience at first, honestly.

    Krys Boyd [00:37:39] Yeah. Like, we might forget that we had a perfectly good bag of carrots in the bottom of the refrigerator if our refrigerators are enormous and packed with food. Meanwhile, in the developing world, a lot of good food is wasted because it can’t yet be kept cool on its journey to market. What did you learn about Rwanda?

    Nicola Twilley [00:37:58] Yeah, this is so interesting because in I visited Rwanda, this is a country where they’ve decided they need to build a cold chain. They don’t have one. I traveled alongside milk fish produce in Rwanda. It is not refrigerated. There’s one ice making machine on the shores of the the big lake. The big freshwater lake there. And the first two guys that come in the morning get enough ice for the for the fish they pick up. After that, it runs out. When it breaks down, they have to get an engineer from Uganda. I mean, you almost can’t believe it coming from the West. But what’s interesting about it is this causes a huge amount of food waste on the way to market. So as it did in the U.S. and in, you know, before we built a cold chain, there are estimates saying 30 to 40% of food goes bad on its way to market. And that is absolutely comparable to numbers that USDA found in the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century. So, absolutely, without a cold chain, there is incredible food waste. And you see it. The food is just broiling in the sun. And yet then what happens in the US once we have this perfect cold chain and we are not losing the food on the way to harvest? Well, yeah, like you say, the carrots at the bottom of the fridge are going bad and we waste between 30 and 40% of our perishables, but we waste it at the consumer end in the grocery stores and in our homes. And so people say refrigeration prevents food waste. And it does. But then the way that we use it and the abundance that it gives us seems to sort of also equal out in the end.

    Krys Boyd [00:39:42] Some food experts worry that our reliance on refrigeration is one more way. We are disconnected from where our food comes from, and even how we ought to care for it before we eat it. What does chicken reuse? Mission to save food from the fridge.

    Nicola Twilley [00:39:58] Yeah, this is a fun example. This is a South Korean designer who is just kind of, you know, for most people, we stick food in the fridge and we forget about it. For most people, a fridge is just sort of it’s going to keep it good. Maybe you think, to put your vegetables in the crisper drawer rather than elsewhere, but not if there isn’t room. You just, you know, just stick it in there. It’ll be fine. And her, her whole sort of thinking is, listen, if we realize that this produce is alive, we might treat it with more respect. And so she designs these incredibly beautiful kitchen storage sort of devices, things that are, you know, special shelving, almost like a miniature root cellar for your carrots, for example. It’s a little adorable little shelf that basically gives sort of a damp sand for you to store your carrots in, which is what they prefer. Carrots, like being in the dark in this kind of slightly humid environment. They prefer that to her fridge and her thinking. And obviously it’s sort of a it’s an artistic intervention, I don’t think. She necessarily sees that we’re, you know, we’re all going to install these, although we could I mean, there was a time when every home would have had a root cellar, but, but her point is, look, if we if we were sort of looking at our fruit and vegetables in our kitchens and they weren’t stashed away at the bottom of our crisper drawer. Unhappy and forgotten and hidden, then maybe we might be more inclined to eat it before it goes bad and, you know, sort of treat it with the respect it deserves. I mean, food is, it’s our most intimate connect, a connection to the Earth. It nourishes us. We need it. The vast amounts of energy and water that go into feeding us. I think that’s something that the fridge has allowed us to completely overlook, because we have this seasonless abundance awaiting us at the grocery store, and most people’s attitude to finding that they’ve forgotten the bag of carrots at the bottom of their fridge is, why buy some more carrots? I’ll throw these and buy some more carrots. If you’re lucky, they might compost it. That’s, you know, that’s the level of respect in her that her thinking is make the carrot visible, understand the carrot as a living organism, and maybe we’d have a slightly better relationship to it. And it sounds utopian, but actually, scientists have found one of the the major outcomes of even just working in a community garden, for example, your food waste goes down because you have a whole new respect for what it takes to produce food when it’s in season, what conditions it likes, how quickly you have to eat it. And this is a funny thing, people stick food in their fridge and they think it’s keeping it safe. Yes, it is, and that it’s not going to kill you, but it’s not getting any better. You stick a bag of spinach in the fridge for a week. It will have lost half the vitamins in it by the time you eat it. So being more intentional, thoughtful about the condition of our produce, eating it when it’s at its peak in season, it’s not only going to be better for the planet, it’s going to be more delicious and better for your health. So I love her work. It’s, you know, it’s sort of whimsical, but it’s a really important point behind it.

    Krys Boyd [00:43:20] All right. Let’s go to one final irony here before I let you go. Broadly speaking, of course, we have access to much healthier diets in the era of refrigeration than before it. But there is some evidence that reducing our everyday exposure to foodborne microbes might have been a little bit bad for us.

    Nicola Twilley [00:43:39] Yeah, this is a really interesting thing. I tried to answer. You know, it seems like a really important question. Has refrigeration been good for our health or not? It’s incredibly difficult to tease out. On the one hand, yes, you have, you know, access to all these fruits and vegetables. No one’s, you know, necessarily suffering from the the precursor to scurvy. In February each year you can go to the store and get some fresh fruit and vegetables. On the other hand, you know, we’re not eating many of those. There’s a whole sort of back and forth what’s whether it really has been good for us. But one of the areas where it really seems conclusive that actually switching to refrigeration has been damaging is the microbes that live in our guts. And the reason why is that fermented food is really one of the few things that can actively kind of shift your gut into a, into a healthier pattern. And prior to refrigeration, while we would have had to have consumed much more fermented, veggies, that’s how they would have been preserved. Fermented food was just a bigger part of the diet in a pre refrigeration cuisine. And increasingly, that healthy gut microbiome is being linked to everything from physical to mental health. So it’s, you know, all these sort of diseases of chronic inflammation that we hear about, in everything from depression to heart disease has been linked to your gut microbiome. It’s early days with this research. Everyone always says that. But I think it’s one of the most sort of interesting, potentially unintended side effects of refrigeration is that reduction of fermented food from our diets is possibly been really damaging.

    Krys Boyd [00:45:27] Nicola Twilley is co-host of the podcast gastropod and author of the new book Frostbite How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet and Ourselves. Nicola, this has been fascinating. Thanks so much for the conversation.

    Nicola Twilley [00:45:40] Oh, thank you so much. These were it was a fabulous conversation. Always. And I really appreciate it.

    Krys Boyd [00:45:46] You can find us on Facebook and Instagram and wherever you get your podcast just by searching for KERA, think or listen at our website. Thanks, Craig. Org. Again, I’m Chris Boyd. Thanks for listening. Have a great day.