Packaging food

More about this object

Canned herring from Norway

Preserving and packaging food significantly alters its properties. Therefore, to what extent can a product that reaches the consumer be considered "natural"? Views on this issue have changed over the years and as preservation techniques have changed. Salted herring, for example, became a staple food throughout Northern Europe as far back as the late Middle Ages and was considered very healthy.

The question of preserving meat with salt was another matter. After centuries of using this method of preservation, it was argued from the 1850s on that that salt decreased meat's nutritional value, so its consumption was discouraged. In Great Britain, the total retreat from pickling meat dates back to 1925, when the Public Health Preservation in Food Act actively promoted domestic refrigeration. Plastic packaging for ready-made foods introduced after the Second World War again tried to change people's ideas about freshness.

Customers were freed from worries about freshness by the printing of "best before" dates, but also by individual shopkeepers' skills (or lack thereof) in cutting, slicing, weighing, and packing food. Industry campaigns promoted the new form of shopkeeping as more hygienic, transferring trust from the shopkeeper to the manufacturer. Packaging also extended the use of preservatives to keep products edible, even after opening.

How to cite this page


Slawomir Lotysz, 'Packaging food', Inventing Europe,


  1. Waste Not, Want Not: Food Preservation From Early Times to the Present Day, edited by Anne Wilson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

About this tour


Processed food: looking for the 'Real Thing'

When artificial foods were introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century, they were widely hailed as technological and scientific progress. They seemed to promise to solve social problems and liberate humanity from the threat of famine once and for all. But choosing what goes on the table is an individual decision, and trust in new foods does not come automatically. Is artificial food safe? But returning to a more "natural" diet is not easy either, because - let's be honest - how real is that "authentic" food?

What's like this?

Preserving food

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