Lactic acid was first isolated in 1780, and the role of Lactobacillus was identified by Louis Pasteur in 1856. And yet, people have been benefiting from lactic acid since the dawn of time; it can be used to preserve food, create medicine, and even preserve youthful skin. Let’s learn more about this amazing compound.
Earliest White Biotech
Humans discovered thousands of years ago that food could be preserved and enhanced by allowing it to ‘sour’ under the right conditions. The interaction was perhaps inevitable, since the various Lactobacillus organisms that cause this souring thrive everywhere on the planet. Early humans learned how to preserve fruits, vegetables, and meats without knowing the mechanism. Milk was also made more digestible for humans when it was ‘soured’, and it could also be stored longer, helping dairy to become a dietary mainstay for many human groups.
People finally began to understand the mechanism with the work of Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish scientist who, in 1780, was the first to isolate lactic acid. In 1856, French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered Lactobacillus, the organism that provided these benefits. The first commercial application was by German pharmacist Boehringer Ingelheim, and his company was selling lactic acid for use in the food industry by 1895.
We now know how bacteria consume carbohydrates and produce lactic acid as a by-product. It reduces pH and creates an environment where harmful organisms such as E. Coli and Salmonella can’t survive. It also has anti-viral properties. In its purified form, it is a colorless, odorless liquid, fragrance-free and stable at room temperature. It is inexpensive to produce in quantity through fermentation or by chemical synthesis. These qualities make it ideal for dozens of commercial applications.
We have lactic acid to thank for sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, sourdough, and many types of fermented fruits and vegetables. It works with yeasts and molds in the production of beer, wine, and cheese. It’s commonly added to processed foods, both for flavor and as a preservative.
Lactic acid does not just preserve, cure, and flavor food. It’s also used in cosmetics and personal care products. Cleopatra is said to have kept her skin soft by bathing in sour milk. It turns out that lactic acid is one of the mildest of alpha hydroxy acids, and it is added to many beauty products due to its antimicrobial and pH-adjusting properties. It gently exfoliates, re-generates, and hydrates human skin, moisturizing it while reducing the signs of aging. As an additive to other types of personal care products, it improves stability and extends shelf life.
A more recent discovery is that condensed lactic acid can be made into a bioplastic called polylactic acid, or PLA. PLA is the second-most produced non-petroleum plastic. It’s used to make bottles, film, and shrink wrap. And perhaps most notably in 3D printers. It’s also used to make medical implants that will be harmlessly absorbed by the body. Thus, a pin, mesh or other implant made of PLA gradually dissolves, slowly transferring its function to the healing organism.
Where Else Might You Find Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid is so affordable, versatile, and useful that it also plays a role in a wide range of other products and applications, including:
- Pharmaceutical industry: various applications, such as an ingredient in chemical contraceptives and electrolyte replacement therapy
- Disinfectants and cleaning products: a safe and effective cleaning and descaling agent, also used as a decontaminant in meat packing
- Agriculture: lactic acid improves soil aeration and promotes plant growth, and beekeepers use it to rid hives of mites
- Animal husbandry: additive in animal feed, and used in veterinary hygiene
- Textiles and leather: as a mordant for fabric dying and treatment for animal hides in leather production
The human body also naturally produces lactic acid, and it is responsible for a wide range of biological functions, assisting in glucose production, immune response, antioxidant properties, cell respiration, and more.
It is Economical and Environmentally Friendly
The increasing consumer demand for products with safer ingredients and better environmental impact makes lactic acid ever more commercially attractive. Since Lactobacillus are fed on agricultural waste, it is inexpensive to produce and effective at turning a waste stream into an asset, reducing dependency on petroleum.
Lactic acid is found everywhere in nature, so it can be disposed of without damaging the environment. In its plastic form, PLA does not degrade in the ambient temperatures of landfills, but it can be safely incinerated, composted, or recycled.
Lactic acid is a natural ingredient used since ancient times, but with an ever-widening array of exciting, novel applications. Chemists, biologists, and food scientists are just a few of the people finding more ways to use lactic acid to create a healthier, cleaner, more sustainable world, and grapefrute supports the companies and industries that make it happen. For more information, contact us today.