Fermented foods are ancient delicacies enjoying a modern resurgence, and fermentation is breaking new ground in ingredient science, merging cutting edge science and health. Today we take a closer look at fermented foods. 

Of course, we know that we rely on the magic of fermentation to create beer and wine. Since ancient times, fermentation has been crucial for sauces, from garum in Ancient Rome to soy sauce in Han China. Fermented cabbage is enjoyed around the world, from kimchi to sauerkraut. And we rely on fermentation to make dosas and sourdough. But why is fermentation so important, and what does it do to foods? 

What is Fermentation Exactly? 

The specific yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae is responsible for converting carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and alcohol. It is one of the most thoroughly studied microorganisms in history, and is a significant model organism in modern cell biology.

Fermentation has been practised in food since neolithic times, although it wasn’t well understood. In fact, yeast is one of the first domesticated species, and yet it wasn’t “discovered” for millennia. Yeast was first observed by Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1680, but it took nearly two hundred years for German physiologist Theodor Schwann to theorize that yeast was alive in 1837. 

In 1857, Louis Pasteur was the first microbiologist to prove definitively that yeasts were living organisms, and that fermentation was a living process and not a chemical reaction. In so doing, he became the first zymologist. Zymologists study the biochemical processes of fermentation, seeking to use the metabolic processes of microorganisms to create specific intended effects. Zymologists help to make (alcoholic) drinks of all kinds, yeast-leavened breads, cheese and dairy products, fish and vegetable sauces, and even chocolate. 

Modern Fermentation Applications

Fermented foods and beverages have become incredibly popular in recent years, enjoyed for their flavors and for their health benefits. While “fermented foods” is an incredibly broad term, and individual foods and beverages have different effects on the body, broadly speaking, fermentation causes a number of beneficial effects on the body, including:  

  • Lactic acid bacteria create bioactive peptides and polyamines with positive effects on the immune system, metabolism, and cardiovascular health
  • Fermentation creates healthy compounds like prebiotics and vitamins
  • Fermentation reduces toxins and anti-nutrients like phytic acid compounds

Fermentation presents exciting areas for exploration, including in engineering gluten-free foods, converting biomass into ethanol, and understanding and improving digestion in everything from humans to cows. 

In food sciences, fermentation offers opportunities to naturally improve food safety, shelf life, nutritional value, aroma, taste, and the appearance of foods. However, we are still faced with the ancient problem of being able to cultivate microbial communities and enjoy the results, but with little predictable control over the population dynamics and adaptive evolution, and millions of areas for research and analysis in stable starters, microbial interactions, and biodiversity mining. Zymologists have more opportunities than ever to be part of the next wave in food, ingredients, nutrition, and creating a whole new approach to alcohol and beverages. To find your next great opportunity in food or fermentation science, or to find top talent in nutrition and applied microbiology, contact grapefrute today.