Fermentation in food processing

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Grapes being trodden to extract the juice and made into wine in storage jars. Tomb of Nakht, 18th dynasty, Thebes, Ancient Egypt.
Sourdough starter from overhead
Sourdough starter.

In food processing, fermentation is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganismsyeasts or bacteria—under anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions. Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desired. The science of fermentation is known as zymology or zymurgy.

The term "fermentation" sometimes refers specifically to the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol, producing alcoholic drinks such as wine, beer, and cider. However, similar processes take place in the leavening of bread (CO2 produced by yeast activity), and in the preservation of sour foods with the production of lactic acid, such as in sauerkraut and yogurt.

Other widely consumed fermented foods include vinegar, olives, and cheese. More localised foods prepared by fermentation may also be based on beans, grain, vegetables, fruit, honey, dairy products, and fish.

History and prehistory[edit]

Conical loaves of bread left as grave goods, exactly as laid out in the Great Tomb at Gebelein, Egypt, 2435-2305 BC

Brewing and winemaking[edit]

Natural fermentation predates human history. Since ancient times, humans have exploited the fermentation process. The earliest archaeological evidence of fermentation is 13,000-year-old residues of a beer, with the consistency of gruel, found in a cave near Haifa in Israel.[1] Another early alcoholic drink, made from fruit, rice, and honey, dates from 7000 to 6600 BC, in the Neolithic Chinese village of Jiahu,[2] and winemaking dates from ca. 6000 BC, in Georgia, in the Caucasus area.[3] Seven-thousand-year-old jars containing the remains of wine, now on display at the University of Pennsylvania, were excavated in the Zagros Mountains in Iran.[4] There is strong evidence that people were fermenting alcoholic drinks in Babylon ca. 3000 BC,[5] ancient Egypt ca. 3150 BC,[6] pre-Hispanic Mexico ca. 2000 BC,[5] and Sudan ca. 1500 BC.[7]

Discovery of the role of yeast[edit]

The French chemist Louis Pasteur founded zymology, when in 1856 he connected yeast to fermentation.[8] When studying the fermentation of sugar to alcohol by yeast, Pasteur concluded that the fermentation was catalyzed by a vital force, called "ferments", within the yeast cells. The "ferments" were thought to function only within living organisms. Pasteur wrote that "Alcoholic fermentation is an act correlated with the life and organization of the yeast cells, not with the death or putrefaction of the cells."[9]

"Cell-free fermentation"[edit]

Nevertheless, it was known that yeast extracts can ferment sugar even in the absence of living yeast cells. While studying this process in 1897, the German chemist and zymologist Eduard Buchner of Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, found that sugar was fermented even when there were no living yeast cells in the mixture,[10] by an enzyme complex secreted by yeast that he termed zymase.[11] In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research and discovery of "cell-free fermentation".

One year earlier, in 1906, ethanol fermentation studies led to the early discovery of oxidized nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+).[12][verification needed]


Beer and bread, two major uses of fermentation in food

Food fermentation is the conversion of sugars and other carbohydrates into alcohol or preservative organic acids and carbon dioxide. All three products have found human uses. The production of alcohol is made use of when fruit juices are converted to wine, when grains are made into beer, and when foods rich in starch, such as potatoes, are fermented and then distilled to make spirits such as gin and vodka. The production of carbon dioxide is used to leaven bread. The production of organic acids is exploited to preserve and flavor vegetables and dairy products.[13]

Food fermentation serves five main purposes: to enrich the diet through development of a diversity of flavors, aromas, and textures in food substrates; to preserve substantial amounts of food through lactic acid, alcohol, acetic acid, and alkaline[14] fermentations; to enrich food substrates with protein, essential amino acids, and vitamins; to eliminate antinutrients; and to reduce cooking time and the associated use of fuel.[15]

Fermented foods by region[edit]

Nattō, a Japanese fermented soybean food made using Bacillus species

Fermented foods by type[edit]


Cheonggukjang, doenjang, fermented bean curd, miso, natto, soy sauce, stinky tofu, tempeh, oncom, soybean paste, Beijing mung bean milk, kinama, iru, thua nao


Batter made from rice and lentil (Vigna mungo) prepared and fermented for baking idlis and dosas

Amazake, beer, bread, choujiu, gamju, injera, kvass, makgeolli, murri, ogi, rejuvelac, sake, sikhye, sourdough, sowans, rice wine, malt whisky, grain whisky, idli, dosa, Bangla (drink) vodka, boza, and chicha, among others.


Kimchi, mixed pickle, sauerkraut, Indian pickle, gundruk, tursu

Fermenting cocoa beans


Wine, vinegar, cider, perry, brandy, atchara, nata de coco, burong mangga, asinan, pickling, vişinată, chocolate, rakı, aragh sagi, chacha, tempoyak


Mead, metheglin


Cheeses in art: Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, Clara Peeters, c. 1615

Some kinds of cheese also, kefir, kumis (mare milk), shubat (camel milk), ayran, cultured milk products such as quark, filmjölk, crème fraîche, smetana, skyr, and yogurt


Bagoong, faseekh, fish sauce, Garum, Hákarl, jeotgal, ngapi, padaek, pla ra, prahok, rakfisk, shrimp paste, surströmming, shidal


Chin som mok is a northern Thai speciality made with grilled, banana leaf-wrapped pork (both skin and meat) that has been fermented with glutinous rice.

Chorizo, salami, sucuk, pepperoni, nem chua, som moo, saucisson, fermented sausage


Pu-erh tea, Kombucha, Lahpet, Goishicha


Sterilization is an important factor to consider during the fermentation of foods. Failing to completely remove any microbes from equipment and storing vessels may result in the multiplication of harmful organisms within the ferment, potentially increasing the risks of food borne illnesses like botulism. However, botulism in vegetable ferments is only possible when not properly canned. The production of off smells and discoloration may be indications that harmful bacteria may have been introduced to the food.

Alaska has witnessed a steady increase of cases of botulism since 1985.[16] It has more cases of botulism than any other state in the United States of America. This is caused by the traditional Alaska Native practice of allowing animal products such as whole fish, fish heads, walrus, sea lion, and whale flippers, beaver tails, seal oil, and birds, to ferment for an extended period of time before being consumed. The risk is exacerbated when a plastic container is used for this purpose instead of the old-fashioned, traditional method, a grass-lined hole, as the Clostridium botulinum bacteria thrive in the anaerobic conditions created by the air-tight enclosure in plastic.[16]

The World Health Organization has classified pickled foods as possibly carcinogenic, based on epidemiological studies.[17] Other research found that fermented food contains a carcinogenic by-product, ethyl carbamate (urethane).[18] "A 2009 review of the existing studies conducted across Asia concluded that regularly eating pickled vegetables roughly doubles a person's risk for esophageal squamous cell carcinoma."[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'World's oldest brewery' found in cave in Israel, say researchers". British Broadcasting Corporation. 15 September 2018. Archived from the original on 8 August 2019. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  2. ^ McGovern, P. E.; Zhang, J.; Tang, J.; Zhang, Z.; Hall, G. R.; Moreau, R. A.; Nunez, A.; Butrym, E. D.; Richards, M. P.; Wang, C. -S.; Cheng, G.; Zhao, Z.; Wang, C. (2004). "Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 101 (51): 17593–17598. Bibcode:2004PNAS..10117593M. doi:10.1073/pnas.0407921102. PMC 539767. PMID 15590771.
  3. ^ "8,000-year-old wine unearthed in Georgia". The Independent. 2003-12-28. Archived from the original on 2019-10-09. Retrieved 2007-01-28.
  4. ^ "Now on display ... world's oldest known wine jar". Archived from the original on 2012-08-26. Retrieved 2007-01-28.
  5. ^ a b "Fermented fruits and vegetables. A global perspective". FAO Agricultural Services Bulletins - 134. Archived from the original on January 19, 2007. Retrieved 2007-01-28.
  6. ^ Cavalieri, D.; McGovern P.E.; Hartl D.L.; Mortimer R.; Polsinelli M. (2003). "Evidence for S. cerevisiae fermentation in ancient wine" (PDF). Journal of Molecular Evolution. 57 (Suppl 1): S226–32. Bibcode:2003JMolE..57S.226C. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/s00239-003-0031-2. PMID 15008419. S2CID 7914033. 15008419. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 9, 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-28.
  7. ^ Dirar, H. (1993). The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan: A Study in African Food and Nutrition. CAB International.
  8. ^ "Fermentation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-05-30.
  9. ^ Dubos, J. (1951). "Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, Gollancz. Quoted in Manchester K. L. (1995) Louis Pasteur (1822–1895)--chance and the prepared mind". Trends in Biotechnology. 13 (12): 511–515. doi:10.1016/S0167-7799(00)89014-9. PMID 8595136.
  10. ^ "Nobel Laureate Biography of Eduard Buchner". Archived from the original on 2016-06-29. Retrieved 2009-08-26.
  11. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1929". Archived from the original on 2006-08-27. Retrieved 2007-01-28.
  12. ^ Harden, A.; Young, W.J. (October 1906). "The Alcoholic Ferment of Yeast-Juice". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. 78 (526) (Series B, Containing Papers of a Biological Character ed.): 369–375. doi:10.1098/rspb.1906.0070.
  13. ^ Hui YH, Meunier-Goddik L, Josephsen J, Nip WK, Stanfield PS (2004). Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology. CRC Press. pp. 27 and passim. ISBN 978-0-8247-5122-7. Archived from the original on 2023-03-17. Retrieved 2016-10-22.
  14. ^ Sarkar, Prabir K.; Nout, M.J. Robert (2014). Handbook of Indigenous Foods Involving Alkaline Fermentation. CRC Press. ISBN 9781466565302.
  15. ^ Steinkraus, K.H., ed. (1995). Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods. Marcel Dekker.
  16. ^ a b "Why does Alaska have more botulism". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. federal agency). Archived from the original on 7 August 2006. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  17. ^ "Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Volumes 1–105" (PDF). International Agency for Research on Cancer (United Nations World Health Organization agency). Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 December 2017. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  18. ^ "New Link Between Wine, Fermented Food And Cancer". ScienceDaily. Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  19. ^ "The WHO Says Cellphones—and Pickles—May Cause Cancer". Slate. June 2011. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011. Retrieved 10 October 2012.

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