You might not want to eat 60-day-old bread but thanks (?) to a Texas company, Microzap, you might soon be able to. The company, which has laboratories on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, has created what the BBC described as a “long, metallic microwave device that resembles an industrial production line.” The device was actually created to kill bacteria such as salmonella but it has been found to be able to kill mold spores in bread in about 20 seconds.
Yes, in less than a minute, bread with a far longer shelf life.
Microzap chief executive Don Stull says that the technology for the machine is mostly the same as in an ordinary microwave but with the difference of “homogeneous signal density.” That is, food in the machine is heated consistently throughout, whereas food warmed in a regular microwave can have cold and hot spots.
Could this invention revolutionize industrial bread manufacturing as we know it?
Apparently, says the BBC, a number of bread manufacturers have expressed interest in the machine. But as Stull himself observes, consumers would need some convincing to buy a product for which freshness has come to be equated with quality. He does point out that the Microzap “zapping” could eliminate the need for the numerous preservatives currently added to bread, as well as other chemicals added to mask their taste.
(No word on how the microwave zapping itself might affect people’s health, though.)
Other foods (ground turkey, jalapeņos and pet foods) can also be sterilized via the technique and their shelf life extended.
Noting that Pentagon officials say troops in the field are weary of peanut butter and jam on crackers, Stull says the technique has potential for adding bread to MREs (“meals ready to eat”). The sterilization technique might also be of use to address food shortages, by making it possible to keep stores of some foods fresh for longer periods of time.
Could giving bread a longer shelf life cut down on food waste?
The average American family throws out some 40 percent of the food it purchases, a total loss nationwide of $165 billion a year. In the U.K., 32 percent of bread bought is tossed and 4.4 million tons of food — much of that vegetables and fruits — is thrown away. 680,000 tons of this is “avoidable” bakery waste, 80 percent of which consists of packs of bread that have been opened but not finished.
The plastic wrapping most bread you find in supermarkets is a chief culprit. Bread remains mold-free for about ten days, says the BBC, but plastic hastens the growth of the fungus Rhizopus stolonifer, which leads to mold. The mechanization that led to the creation of such products as bland white Wonder Bread in the U.S. has also made such large quantities of relatively low-cost bread available that people tend to buy more than they need.
Mold on bread is certainly a visible sign that it is past its prime. The FDA can be said to “approve [of] outdated food,” says The Atlantic, in that expiration dates are actually “simply an indication of optimum quality as deemed by the manufacturer.” Many foods, such as canned ones, can be consumed sometime after “sell by” and “use by” dates.
Supermarkets throw away piles of goods every year, knowing that customers will not buy products perceived as out of date. Some of these “unsaleables” go to food banks, some to salvage centers; some end up in dumpsters. Restaurants are even worse, with the food they toss comprising 15 percent of all that ends up in landfill.
Microzap could change this. Is this sterilization technique a sign of progress or, rather, one revealing how very far we are from eating food in its natural state?
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