10 food innovations that changed our lives

Vintage Diner, c. 1920s Flickr user erjkprunczyk

(MoneyWatch) When I was a kid, I remember plopping down in front of the TV set with a classic Swanson frozen dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables accompanied by a glass of Kool-Aid. Yummy.

What can I say? I had two working parents who couldn't cook to save their lives.

Around the same time, New York City schools had become so overcrowded that some adopted a two-shift system. During my last two years of high school, I was home in time for lunch. Since nobody was there to make it for me, I got creative in the kitchen and just started throwing things together.

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As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Those early experiments turned into a life-long passion for food and drink. I'm certainly not alone. While more and more people are getting fat on fast food and sugary drinks and snacks, an exploding foodie movement has given us Whole Foods, Iron Chef America and Gordon Ramsay.

Whichever side of the equation you're on, when it comes to the way we eat, drink, cook and shop for food, nothing's the same as it was just a few decades ago. Nothing.

Over the past two years alone, sales of specialty foods in the U.S. outpaced most sectors of the economy, rocketing up 19 percent $75 billion in 2011. And Americans consumed a record $30 billion worth of wine in 2010.

If you're into big numbers, the food industry generates about half a trillion dollars in annual sales, has created 2 million jobs over the past decade, and now employs over 13 million Americans, according to the National Restaurant Association.

To understand just how far we've come from the nauseating canned vegetables, flavorless frozen orange juice, and generic diner food of my childhood, here are 10 food innovations that changed our lives, mostly for the better:

Natural and organic foods. No, I'm not talking about labels that say "natural" but include all sorts of disgusting stuff that nobody should be eating. I'm talking about the advent of grocery chains Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and zillions of independent specialty and farmer's markets in just about every major city, suburb and town in America. If you're smart about it, it isn't even more expensive than the fast food and processed crap most people eat.

Frozen foods. We've come a long way since a taxidermist named Clarence Birdseye invented and commercialized what has become the multi-billion dollar frozen food industry. Today, "flash freezing" techniques are used to rapidly freeze everything from fish and meat to fruits and vegetables while minimizing cell damage or freezer burn. The convenience for homeowners is awesome. Of course, it helps if you have a big freezer.

Cold transport. When you buy apples that came from New Zealand or fish from Alaska, how do you think it gets to your grocery store? An entire industry called "cold chain logistics" has emerged to safely transport and maintain the quality of temperature sensitive foods and other products all over the world. A Hofstra University report says that an estimated $1.2 trillion of refrigerated food was transported in 2002. And all that happens behind the scenes.

Food TV and websites. Food TV has grown up. Emeril Live, Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals, and Bobby Flay's grilling programs have spawned huge brands, while shows like Kitchen Nightmares, Top Chef, Iron Chef America and a host of other fast-paced programs have turned cooking into drama and competitive sports. Now you can throw out your cookbooks, watch the shows for techniques and, if you need a recipe, search foodnetwork.com.

Chinese takeout. Besides the ubiquitous pizza box, the only takeout food available when I grew up in Brooklyn was from the local Chinese restaurant. Besides the Italian, Greek, and Jewish foods of the local populace, that was our only exposure to international cuisine. Now we have Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian -- just about every nationality you can think of, and nearly all offer takeout. But for me, it all started with Chinese spare ribs, roast pork fried rice, and eggrolls with duck sauce.

New world wine, crafted beer, and premium liquor. If you grew up on Bud, Thunderbird wine, and Seagram's 7, you know what I'm talking about when I say the American alcohol scene has evolved over the past few decades. I'll add this: No mass-produced America lager has ever touched the inside of my refrigerator, most of the liquor bottles in my bar have corks, and my wine cellar is way bigger than it should be, especially in this economy.

Starbucks coffee. Move over Maxwell House and Mr. Coffee; Starbucks is everywhere. I prefer Peet's, and lots of my friends have defected to McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, but there's no denying that Starbucks changed the way Americans drink coffee. Not only that, but they're all over the world, even in traditionally tea-drinking countries like Japan and China.

Bottled water. Last week, at a one-on-one meeting with the CEO of a multibillion dollar company, I was served a plastic bottle of water. That never would have happened 10 years ago. These days, people take their trusty H2O on the go wherever they go. The U.S. market for bottled water has nearly doubled over the past decade, despite an environmental backlash that stalled its growth for several years.

Food franchises. Like it or not, franchises have revolutionized the restaurant and quick serve grocery businesses. White Castle was the lone fast-food restaurant in 1921, but the industry has since exploded. According to a National Restaurant Association report, the U.S. fast food industry alone accounted for $157 billion in sales in 2008, with franchises now operating in over 100 countries. Then you've got all sorts of other restaurant chains, 7-11s, and who knows what else. It's big, big business.

Sustainable agriculture. As innovations go, this one's a work in progress. While it's been a long time coming and has a long way to go, our attitudes on what we put in our bodies and how we treat animals and the environment is definitely changing. The availability of meat, fish and dairy that comes from sustainable farming of free-range animals free of disease, hormones and antibiotics gets better every day. Sure, it's pricey, but that will improve in time, as well.

Image courtesy of Flickr user erjkprunczyk

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