The Role of Fermentation in the Food Processing Industry
Fermentation is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or to organic acids using microorganisms, such as yeasts or bacteria. This process takes place when there are beneficial bacteria present that break down the starch and sugars in the food. As the microorganisms divide, lactic acid is formed, which stops the growth of bad bacteria. The lactic acid is also what gives fermented foods that very specific ‘tangy’ or ‘acidic’ taste. Fermented foods can last for many months (some products even lasting multiple years) as long as they are stored in a cool, dark place and kept in the solution of salt and water known as brine.
Fermentation Then and Now
For thousands of years, before the invention of refrigerators and freezers, the most common way to preserve food from spoiling was through fermentation. Fermentation has existed since the Neolithic Era, some of the earliest documentation of fermentation being between 7000-6600 BCE in Jiahu, China.
Fermentation can also make food healthier and safer to consume. For instance, in the Middle Ages, drinking water was hazardous because it frequently contained pathogens that could spread disease. Making the water into beer made it safe to drink, as any deadly bacteria previously present in the water were killed during the brewing process. Additionally, since microorganisms can produce vitamins as they ferment, the beer had added nutrients in it from the barley and various other ingredients.
In today’s Western society, we don’t eat quite as many fermented foods as our ancestors did. The most commonly consumed fermented food and drink would be cheese, beer, wine, yogurt, cured sausage and sourdough bread. Many store-bought fermented foods, like sauerkraut or pickles, are not authentic as they are often preserved in vinegar instead of the traditional and naturally occurring beneficial bacteria. Due to North America’s strict health and safety concerns, these foods are also often pasteurised, which robs the foods of their nutrients and minerals.