Refrigeration Changed Food in Unexpected Ways

In the New Yorker, Nicola Twilley looks at how it changed the very flavor
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 23, 2024 2:00 PM CDT
Refrigeration Changed Food in Unexpected Ways
An old-school rerigerator.   (Getty / Alexseyliss)

The cheeseburger emerged a century ago, not too long after the dawn of refrigeration, and it's no mere coincidence, writes Nicola Twilley in the New Yorker. If you tried to make one from scratch—harvest grain for the buns, slaughter a cow for the meat, grow some lettuce and tomatoes, age cheese, you'll find that the timing is all but impossible without refrigeration. It's just one example of the countless ways the invention has fundamentally changed the way we eat, though it's not the primary focus of Twilley's piece. Instead, she examines how refrigeration changed the very flavor of our food itself. Sometimes, in direct fashion—Twilley explains how the components of certain foods evolve in the fridge overnight and why leftover chili or soups might taste better to some as a result.

But perhaps more surprisingly is this: Our food and drinks have grown sweeter as an indirect result of refrigeration. "At least three of our basic taste receptors—sweet, bitter, and umami, or savory—are extremely temperature sensitive," she explains. "When food or drinks cool the tongue to below fifty-nine degrees, the channels through which these receptors message the brain seem to close up, and the resulting flavor signal is extremely weak." A warm Coke or a bowl of ice cream doesn't just taste weird because it's warm: Because "they're intended to be consumed cold, they need to contain too much sugar in order to boost the signal, and to register in our brains as sweet at all." This helps explain why food manufacturers have been putting so much extra sugar into products—if we drink a cold beverage with our meal, the accompanying food needs that sugar to pop. Read the full story, which is an excerpt of Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves. (More Longform stories.)

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