Now you usually associate the French with gourmet food. But did you know … that the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte helped develop canned foods?
You will know him as a great military general who fought the British at Waterloo.
But you probably don’t think of him when you open up a can of beans…or in fact any can of food.
The tin can was invented because Napoleon needed to feed an army of 600,000 men to fight the Russians. Napoleon knew that an army travels on its stomach and the French Army had to carry its own food.
In 1795, Napoleon held a contest and offered a cash prize of 12 000 francs, a small fortune in those days, for a reliable method of preserving food safely to feed the French Army and Navy.
The winner, in 1806, was a French chef called Nicholas Appert, who figured out that if you put fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and even milk, in jars sealed with pitch and then cook it for several hours, the contents would last for several months.
By 1860 the process had been reduced to 30 minutes and used metal cans.
Napoleon lost his war, but the can survived. Think about that next time you open a can of beans!
Cans are little pressure cookers. The food is sealed in them and cooked to over 120ºC – which kills all the harmful bacteria and inactivates enzymes, making the food safe to store without refrigeration. This heating and later cooling forms a vacuum seal. The vacuum seal prevents other microorganisms from recontaminating the food within the jar or can.
For a long while canned food was only used by armies and explorers – who needed to carry food with them. During the mid-19th century, canned food became a status symbol amongst middle-class households in Europe being something of a novelty. But by the 1920’s cans had become popular in most homes.
Some food is actually better canned than fresh. Canned fruits and vegetables are as rich with dietary fiber and vitamins as the same corresponding fresh or frozen foods, and in some cases the canned products are richer than their fresh or frozen counterparts. The heating process during canning appears to make dietary fiber more soluble, and therefore more readily fermented and digested.
Tomatoes when cooked or preserved using heat, release lycopene-a carotenoid that may help prevent prostate, breast cancer and macular degeneration – that’s poor eyesight as you get older.
Raw beans can be poisonous, but when canned are a great source of protein and nutrients.
Just like everything else, the nutrients within canned fish don’t differ from fresh. The canning process can also make them a better source of calcium over fresh fish. This is because the process softens any bones, making them edible. It also comes with the added convenience of not needing much preparation or needing to store it in the fridge or freezer to make sure it doesn’t go off quickly.
So you can enjoy canned foods whenever you like. And remember they are not tinned foods – but foods in tin cans.
By the way: The first tin cans, invented in 1810, were heavy-weight containers that required ingenuity to open The directions on the can said “Cut round the top near the edge with knives, a chisel and hammer or even rocks!” It was not until 1858, when canners started using thinner metal, that Ezra Warner invented an instrument dedicated to opening cans – the can-opener. So cans were invented before the can-opener!