The History Channel Tells the Story of Processed Food

Aug. 15, 2019

A 3-part series on The History Channel offers an ironic lesson on the task of becoming—or staying—relevant in the world of food and beverage.

As we approach our 80th birthday year at Food Processing, we like to look back at how far food processing as a whole has come. For our 70th birthday, we published a history lesson of sorts on our site. 

We're still a youthful-looking 79 right now, so when the History Channel started airing a three-part miniseries titled The Food That Built America we took notice. 

I've only seen parts 1 and 2, but they are fascinating looks at the origins of modern packaged/processed foods as told through the stories of budding innovators like Henry Heinz, John and Will Kellogg, C.W. Post and the John Pemberton-Asa Candler duo that created Coca-Cola and the eponymous company.

Episode 2 digs deep into candy and confections and features Milton Hershey and the father-son Mars team. I think Episode 3, "Post-War America," will introduce visionaries like Harland Sanders, the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc.

Through disgusting depictions of moldy meat, additions of fillers like sawdust and formaldehyde and outrageous health claims, the viewer gets a feel for how reckless the food landscape was before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Heinz ketchup, for example, was developed to hide the taste of rancid meat, the first episode says, and apparently was the first nationally distributed packaged food product. The show also implies H.J. Heinz's semi-automated factory was a model for Henry Ford.

And yes, the original Coca-Cola formula did use coca leaf extract, straight from South America.

It's funny, and ironic, to see these scrappy little entrepreneurs fighting to establish their businesses … whereas today their giant legacy companies are fighting to stay relevant in the face of 21st century entrepreneurs.

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