Processed Foods: Gun-Puffed, Extruded, Pelletized…
I have often wondered how the whole processed food revolution started. So I headed down the rabbit hole to learn more about the history of both processed food for humans and processed feed for horses.
Kellogg’s early whole grain cereals at the beginning of the 1900’s gave way to a need based on centralized warehouses of being able to maintain shelf life. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which were roasted, still had a percentage of oil, which caused the flakes to go rancid within a few weeks. In 1905 Kelloggs eliminated the corn germ as well as the bran, using only the starchy center of the corn. Unbeknownst to Kelloggs, the bran and germ contained many vitamins and other phyto nutrients, which many years later would be added back to the flakes in the inexpensive form of synthetic and coal tar and petrochemical derivatives.
The Kellogg Company’s solution highlights the central paradox we face today: that convenience and nutrition are deeply at odds with each other.
In 1904 the Quaker Oats Company introduced a new technology called Gun Puffing. The new machinery was demonstrated at the Worlds’ Fair in St. Louis using army surplus canons, filled with white rice, and then heated. As the canons got hot, pressure increased inside the chambers, and when the chambers opened the resulting drop in pressure forced the rice to explode.
Extrusion machines were created in the 1930’s and became more widely adopted as a way to process grains for cereals in the 1960’s. Extrusion machines can take multiple ingredients, mix them together rapidly, and form and endless array of shapes and sizes
According to author Melanie Warner (Pandora’s Lunchbox, 2013) “Extrusion is undoubtedly the harshest and most nutritionally devastating way to process. These are not gentle machines. They look a bit like oversized jackhammers turned on their sides. Inside the long, steel barrel the starch, sugar, and protein molecules are ripped apart by twisting screws that generate large amounts of heat and pressure. Think of extrusion as a molecular melting pot.”
The process of extrusion is often referred to as “plasticization” which pretty much sums up the nutritional gist of what happens inside an extruder.
To create the slurry that is a thick homogenized mass that goes through the extruder, the ingredients are ground and then exposed to steam cooking under pressure, then drying and toasting. This process subjects grain and other raw materials to temperatures of 525 degrees F to 625 degrees F. This effectively kills off B-vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, folate, and phyto nutrients. Sweetners and vitamins and minerals are coated to the flakes during the toasting procedure.
In the equine industry, pelletizing or extrusion is used. The pelletizing method for processed feed requires the food ingredients (grains, forages, etc) to be ground or compressed in Roll and Die assembly (think of a hammer mill), which reduces the particle size of the ingredients. Pelletizing does require thermal heating before the mix is pushed through holes in the pellet mill, and then cooled. Vitamin and mineral pre-mixes are commonly sprayed onto the pellets.
For processed feed companies, pelletizing which is not quite as brutal to food as extrusion, does allow for lower-quality raw materials because the consumer can’t “see” into the pellets. Texturized feeds, which are more whole grain (think granola) feeds, may use pellets for the vitamin and mineral pre-mixes.
In the journey of learning more about the history of processed feed (and processed food for humans), I ran across a pioneer consumer activist: Harvey W Wiley, who had a 50 year crusade for pure foods. In 1883 he became Chief Chemist at the newly formed federal Agriculture Department. He tried half a dozen times to introduce the nation’s first pure food legislation.
In 1902 an official from a large food distribution company told Congress that Wiley’s bill would ruin all sectors of the food industry. “Make us leave preservatives and coloring matters out of our food, and make us call products by their right name and you will have bankrupted every food industry in the country,” the official warned (Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner, 2013).
Wiley fought corn sweeteners (corn syrup), wanted additives and non traditional ingredients (chemicals) listed clearly on food packages. Interestingly enough, he fought Monsanto’s inaugural product: Saccharin. Wiley considered Saccharin potentially harmful to the kidneys, and he felt that adding Saccharin to canned foods to be deceitful (lessening a product’s quality) and unsafe. In 1914 Wiley made this famous quote to Good Housekeeping magazine: “I have always stood for food that is food.”
One can only imagine what Wiley would think of today’s current array of adulterated food and processed feed.