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The Father of Food Preservation
Nicholas Appert invented techniques for long-term food storage
by Lori Valigra
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new series for Food Quality, Innovators in Food Safety and Science. The next article, which will appear in our April/May issue, will feature Louis Pasteur.
Just after the new year began, President Obama signed legislation for the most sweeping overhaul of America’s food safety system in more than 70 years, allowing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to impose new rules to prevent contamination. It’s a concern that dates back to Roman times, but food microbiology saw major advances starting in the late 1700s, spearheaded by no less than Napoleon.
Safe food meant strong troops and power to Napoleon, who noted aptly that “an army travels on its stomach.” His troops suffered more from hunger and scurvy than combat. In 1795, to be sure his men had safe rations, the French government under Napoleon offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could come up with a food preservation method.
Nicolas Appert, the Parisian confectioner and distiller who ultimately claimed the prize, spent more than a decade discovering that boiled foods placed in airtight glass containers would not spoil. In 1810, Peter Durand, a British merchant who received the patent for the tin containers that were forerunners of the cans used today, further refined the concept, although controversy remains about that part of canning history, according to an article in the Institute of Food Technologies’ May 2007 issue of Food Technology.
Appert’s discovery provided the first reliable method for preserving many different types of foods for extended periods of time so that they could be used by troops on deployment. Some even say the method gave Napoleon a strategic advantage.
Today, Napoleon’s message isn’t so different from that of the food companies that have learned from the history of food microbiology. While not exactly on a military campaign to conquer other countries, they are on an international marketing campaign for their products. And businesses are fully aware they could be toppled by a large recall or by outbreaks that sicken or kill consumers. Millions of dollars are lost to product recalls as production halts, products sit on warehouse shelves and are then discarded, and the public hesitates to buy from the involved company again.
—Joseph Marcy, PhD, Virginia Tech
At the time, there were no fruits or vegetables on the ships, and food was smoked, dried, fermented, or salted. He got glowing reports from the French Navy.
Preventing Air Exposure
Appert, who was a jack-of-all-trades, used his experience as a candy maker, vintner, chef, brewer, and pickle maker to perfect his technique, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute, which wrote that Appert assumed that, as with wine, air exposure spoiled food. He experimented for 15 years and succeeded at preservation first by partially cooking food, including meats, and sealing it in glass bottles with cork stoppers, wire, and sealing wax, and then boiling the bottles for more than 12 hours in water, expelling potentially harmful air. Samples of Appert’s preserved food—18 different types—were sent to the French Navy at sea.
“At the time, there were no fruits or vegetables on the ships, and food was smoked, dried, fermented, or salted. He got glowing reports from the French Navy,” said Joseph Marcy, PhD, head of the food science and technology department at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Indeed, the troops could now enjoy partridges, fruits, vegetables, and gravy that tasted close to the food bought at local markets at home.
“Not a single substance had undergone the least change at sea,” Appert wrote of the trial. He was awarded Napoleon’s prize in 1810. As part of the government’s requirements, shortly thereafter Appert published a book called “L’Art De Conserver, Pendant Plusieurs Années, Toutes les Substances Animales et Végétales” (“The Book of All Households: or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years”), the first modern food preservation cookbook, which detailed the canning process for more than 50 foods.
It Works, but Why?
Appert apparently did not fully grasp why his approach worked. It would take another 54 years until Louis Pasteur, who started working with microbes, understood why Appert’s approach, which hermetically sealed the bottle, worked, Dr. Marcy explained. Appert’s lack of a scientific background meant his discovery was part luck, part persistence. “He did two things that set him aside,” said Dr. Marcy. “He was scrupulously clean, and he took meticulous notes.” The endorsement of the French Navy was also a big plus.
Appert realized that heat treatment alone was insufficient, Dr. Marcy said, but that food in glass jars with the opening sealed by a waxed cork stopper that had been jammed in, then boiled in water at 212°F for hours, worked. “He got lucky that this worked,” said Dr. Marcy. “There were some heat-resistant microorganisms that he didn’t encounter. He also was lucky that the French Navy demonstrated it.”
He believes that Appert wasn’t working totally from scratch. The idea of preservation by heat was known. There are also historical references to preservation of juice by mild heat treatments, a process now known as “hot filling.” This method was known in Roman times, although the Romans did not have hermetically sealed containers. But Appert could have known of hermetic sealing using water to tighten the lid to the jar for preserving kimchee and sauerkraut in crockery.
In 1860, it was discovered that calcium chloride could raise the temperature of boiling water more than 28°F, which speeded the canning process and made it safer. Canning came to the United States in 1819 but didn’t become popular until the Civil War, experiencing a later boom during the two world wars.
A Modest Beginning
Little is known about Appert’s personal life except that he was born in the parish of St. Loup in Chalons-sur-Marne in 1749 and died in 1841. On his birth certificate, his father Claude was described as a woolcomber, though some accounts say he was a hotelkeeper, as J.C. Graham, chief medical officer of H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd., noted in the May 1981 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. According to Graham, Appert was originally an apprentice cook at the Palais-Royal Hotel in Chalon and then became steward to the Duke and Duchess of Deux-Ponts. He was known to have experimented with food his whole life, working in distilling and brewing, grocers’ storehouses, kitchens, and wine cellars before becoming a confectioner in Paris in 1780. He left that profession in 1796 to focus on devising his preservation method.
Appert came from a long line of farmers and innkeepers, according to “Science and Its Times,” by Neil Schlager, which said that as a boy Appert learned to cook and to cork champagne bottles. In 1784, he used an inheritance to open a candy and grocery shop in Paris. He married Elisabeth Benoist and had five children. As his grocery business grew, he started experimenting with preserving food beyond the harvest season and is said to have used champagne bottles early on because they were thick enough to withstand the pressure of bubbles. According to Schlager, Appert hypothesized that “heat destroys or at least neutralizes the fermentation that changes the quality of animal and vegetable substances.”
—J.C. Graham, H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd.
Appert’s great contribution was that he planned methodical experiments, verified them by exact observations, and drew logical conclusions.
By 1802, according to Schlager, Appert had moved to a large property in Massy, outside Paris, where he could combine a farm and a factory so that the food to be preserved was closer to where it was grown. There, he experimented with meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. He had enough space to wash and rinse, label, and package jars, along with a lab to test new products. In the early 1800s, he traveled to port cities in France and asked naval authorities to test his preserved meats and vegetables. He already had experience with various foodstuffs before taking samples to the government and subsequently winning the prize. Despite his success with canning, he struggled throughout his life because of high equipment costs and at one time lost his factory and had to rebuild. He retired in 1836 and is said to have died a pauper at age 91.
Though lacking a science and research background, Appert possessed the instincts of a scientist. “Appert’s great contribution was that he planned methodical experiments, verified them by exact observations, and drew logical conclusions,” wrote Graham. “In 1804 his methods had been perfected and his samples tested by the Marine Prefect at Brest who reported to the Board of Health in Paris: ‘The broth in the bottles was good, the broth included with boiled beef in a special vessel good also but weak. The beef itself was very edible. The beans and green peas prepared both with and without meat have all the freshness and agreeable flavour of freshly picked vegetables.’”
Appert described the four essential stages of his process in his book, which was later translated into a number of languages, including English. According to Graham, the four were: “1st: To place in the bottles or glass jars the substances to be preserved; 2nd: To cork these different vessels with the greatest care because success chiefly depends on the closing; 3rd: To submit these substances thus enclosed to the action of boiling water in a water bath for a more or less time according to their nature and in the manner that I shall indicate for each kind of food; and 4th: To remove the bottles from the water bath at the time prescribed.”
“What Appert did, which was important, was to make tests with different foods to find out how long they needed to be heated. He understood the need for airtight containers although he did not understand why this was so,” Graham wrote. He quoted Appert’s writing: “‘I owe to my experiments and above all to my great perseverance, being convinced, first, that the subject of heat has the essential quality not only of changing the constituent parts of animal and vegetable products but also that if not destroying, at least arresting for many years the natural tendency of these products to decomposition. Second, that having deprived them in a most rigorous manner possible of air, effects preservation of these same products with all their natural qualities.’”
Appert’s method left air at the top of the bottle, then sealed the cork firmly using a vise and wrapped the bottle in canvas for protection in the boiling water. He used thick, large-mouthed glass bottles to preserve beef, fowl, eggs, milk, and other food. According to Wikipedia, canning an entire sheep won him the most publicity. Appert remains celebrated today, not only with his own Facebook and Myspace pages, but in awards. One of the most prestigious, the Nicolas Appert Award, is given annually by the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago for lifetime achievement in food technology.