Innovation of the Month: Food Fermentation for Biopreservation

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By Brandon Pierce

Although the word “bacteria” is usually associated with sickness and disease, it is the driving force behind fermentation, a food process on which humans have relied for millennia. Some of the earliest recorded instances of fermentation come from East Asia where, according to William Shurtleff, founder of the SoyInfo Center, the process was used as early as 300 BCE to ferment soybeans.

Fermentation has been used for millennia to preserve and improve the nutritional content of foods. (Photo credit: the DIY Gourmet)

Fermentation historically has had two purposes. Foods undergoing the fermentation process went through remarkable changes in taste, basically allowing for the creation of new foods. Fermentation also served as a way to prevent foods from spoiling. It is referred to as a biopreservation method, or a way to preserve foods using beneficial microorganisms.

In biopreservation, beneficial bacteria are used to prevent food spoilage and get rid of harmful pathogens. Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are probably the most commonly used due to their unique properties and because they are harmless to humans. As LABs compete for nutrients with other bacteria, they release antimicrobials that stop spoilage and inhibit the growth of potentially harmful pathogens.

In functioning as an effective biopreservative, bacteria do not necessarily have to also start the process of fermentation. Generally, bacteria are selected either for their metabolic properties, which cause fermentation, or for their antimicrobial activity, which is important for food preservation. LAB can be used for both.

Today, fermentation is most often used to produce foods such as cheese and alcoholic beverages. However, researchers at the University of Granada say that it is reemerging as an important method of food preservation in response to increasing concerns about food-related illness. Biopreservation provides an alternative to chemical preservatives and physical treatments that tend to destroy beneficial nutrients. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is a low-energy process that decreases the need for refrigeration and other food preservation technologies, making it well suited for use in developing countries and remote areas.

Fermented foods from both plant and animal sources are already a large part of people’s diets in developing countries, with examples including nham in Thailand and palm wine in Africa. Here, fermentation often relies on small-scale, traditional methods that have been practiced for generations. An FAO spotlight notes that for rural populations, fermentation increases food security by increasing the amount of materials that can be used in food production. The process also preserves and is even able to increase the nutrient content of food. Food science researchers are finding ways to update traditional fermentation knowledge with modern technologies to reduce production costs and increase the safety of fermented foods.

According to the University of Granada study, more work is necessary to fully understand how environmental factors might influence bacteria activity. But biopreservation has the potential to become an important part of how food is managed in both industrial and developing countries.

Brandon Pierce is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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