Pasteurization Is the Biggest Food Science Breakthrough We Never Think About

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Library of Congress)

If there’s one food science breakthrough that stands apart from the rest, it’s pasteurization, milk pasteurization to be specific. Its very adoption changed the health of our nation. To put it another way, in New York during the 1850s, fewer than half of all children born lived to see their 5th birthday, with tainted milk being the biggest cause of illness.

So let’s take a look at the story of how this taken-for-granted breakthrough came to happen, and the story weaves through not just Pasteur, but Macy’s department store.

(Image credit: Library of Congress)

How Pasteur & the President of Macy’s Changed Milk

You already know about French chemist Louis Pasteur, and the role he played in pasteurized foods. But what about the part of Macy’s department stores? Specifically, the store’s president, Nathan Straus. He took pasteurization mainstream, so you can pretty much thank him for not being dead.

As I mentioned in my food preservation article, Nicolas Appert, the inventor of canning, was on to something when he deduced that it was heat (and not the lack of air) that kept canned food from spoiling; he just didn’t know why. That answer came some 50 years later.

Picture it: France in the mid-19th century. The country’s wine industry is experiencing somewhat of a golden age. Bordeaux receives its official classification, and goes on to become one of the world’s most famous regions. And the French economy is booming as the country’s wine reaches international recognition, truly setting the standard for wines across the globe.

That is, until it all began to suck. Wine that was exported was beginning to sour, and turn to vinegar. French beer was also experiencing these complications.

Enter Pasteur, who, at the time, was residing in Lille, the center of France’s alcohol manufacturing. There, he began examining what was causing alcohol to spoil. When looked at under a microscope, Pasteur found thousands of tiny microorganisms, which he believed were the cause. He was right. Though he was vilified for even suggesting it, Pasteur proved that liquids were being contaminated by microbes floating within the air.

Unlike Appert’s method, which boiled the heck out of everything, Pasteur found that simply heating a young wine between 122–140 °F for a brief period was more than sufficient at killing off pathogenic microbes, all while maintaining quality.

During this same time, America was going through its Industrial Revolution. Prior to, most people lived on farms, where cow’s milk was readily available, or just a short wagon ride away. As urban densities increased, so did supply chains, and raw milk began to travel further and further. Railroads decreased some of this travel time, but dairy cows were still being milked by unwashed hands, and the milk itself was stored in containers that weren’t sterilized. Plus, the role of milk was becoming more and more important as women were working outside of the home, inside of factories, and breast feeding less and less.

As a result, infant mortality rates were rising at alarming levels.

(Image credit: Library of Congress)

Straus (above with his wife), convinced there was a scientific solution to this problem, established the privately funded Nathan Straus Pasteurized Milk Laboratory, which provided safe milk to children in New York’s poorest neighborhoods (pictured below). Over the course of 25 years, 297 stations were built across 36 different cities, serving more than 24 million bottles of safe milk to drink. As a result, it is estimated that Straus’ efforts saved the lives of 445,800 children!

Oddly enough, milk safety has now come full circle as proponents of raw milk are on the rise, claiming that some of milk’s better components are destroyed during pasteurization, not only the bad stuff.

So is raw milk now safe to drink? I do not know. I myself, much like the Food Babe, am not an expert in food safety. I think drinking raw milk is just a personal choice. My advice, if you’re going to drink it, have Uber installed on your phone so you can quickly get to the ER, if need be.

(Image credit: Library of Congress)