Since mankind started walking the earth, food gathering activities led to the challenge still faced by modern homemakers today—what to do with the leftovers?
Hunting large game required significant effort and energy; early humans certainly didn’t want to eat only a portion of their kill and leave the rest as carrion.
Necessity being the mother of invention, our ancestors gradually developed ingenious methods of storing the remains of precious flesh for future consumption, some of which are still practiced today.
One of those is sun drying. From fish and meat to fruits and berries, prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause food to lose its water content, thus making it an inhospitable environment for the bacteria that would cause food to spoil.
Another process commonly used to prevent the growth of bacteria in food is smoking. This was most likely discovered when meat was left in the already smoking remnants of the wood used to roast game after a kill.
Although cavemen didn’t have access to today’s food additives like sulfur dioxide, there were more than a few natural food preservatives available during the Stone Age. Chief among them was salt.
Through a process of osmosis, salt dehydrates fresh food, leaving microbes high and dry. In effect, salting prevents bacterial growth while protecting food from yeasts and molds.
Another natural preservative is sugar. It spurs the same process of osmosis to prevent the growth of microorganisms. The main difference between using salt and sugar is the way they modify the taste of food, giving a choice between salty and sweet end products.
A combination of sugar and water can also bring about fermentation. If the fermenting process is stopped early, the result is alcohol, a deterrent to bacterial growth. If fermentation is allowed to go on, it produces vinegar.
Vinegar contains acetic acid, which is excellent for killing microbes that can cause food spoilage. A variety of types of vinegar exist, each one depending on the sugar base used to make it for its properties.
Another traditional preservative is rosemary extract, also known as “rosemary oleoresin.” This can be prepared by distilling a watery concentrate containing its leaves, and the result serves as a very powerful antioxidant.
Natural compounds such as phenolic diterpenes, carnosic acid, carnosol and rosmarinic acid are what make this preservative so effective. It can prevent the oxidation of food components, which in effect preserves a food’s flavor and color. It has a wonderful fragrance, too.
These ancient ways of preserving food became the basis of the chemicals we use to preserve our food today. If they were given a choice between ingredients such as salt, sugar and rosemary or artificial additives like butylated hydroxyanisole, there’s a good chance our ancestors would have still chosen natural preservatives.
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