Bacteria? You eat them everyday! Microorganisms have been an integral part of our nutrition for thousands of years…
That was before
Throughout history, people of all civilizations have – without knowing it – benefitted from microorganisms that have transformed their food. Without them, many of our favorite foods would not exist: bread, dairy products, cheese and fermented beverages (cider, wine, beer, etc.)
We could say that these are all ancient forms of biotechnology (1)!
Microbiology started to study the different types of microorganisms in the XIX century. In the years between 1850 and 1860, for the first time, the research of Louis Pasteur shed light on the role of microorganisms in food, showing that they were responsible for milk spoilage and the poor aging for wine. This discovery resulted in pasteurization.
We discover new microorganisms every day and learn to benefit from their role in food production. And we don’t just settle for “raising” the microorganisms necessary for the transformation of certain foods, we also use them to “produce” substances (amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, etc.) used as additives in food industry.
Thanks to these microorganisms, we can create products that have increased nutritional values, that often are more digestible and/or have a better shelf life than the original product.
And that’s a good thing, because the microorganisms, and the substances they produce, are entirely natural: more and more, they are replacing chemical additives.
Bacteria and Co.
There are many different types of microorganisms in our food that we happily ingest: such as yeast and mold …
Here is a brief overview (you can find lots of information online) – of the main microorganisms that make a major contribution to some of our daily food:
- We need bacteria for cheese production, deli meat and sauerkraut production. Their names? Lactobacillus, Stretptococcus, Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, Propionibacterium … The Acetobacter and other Gluconobacter are also extremely useful in wine and vinegar creation.
- When it comes to mold (Penicillium, Mucor, Aspergillus), without them, no soft-ripened cheese or blue-veined cheese.
- Saccharomyces, Schizosaccharomyces ou Zygosaccharomyces: weapons of mass destruction? No! Yeasts: they are why bread rises and wine and other products ferment.
Stunning fermented drinks from around the world
There are traditional fermented drinks, which are more or less alcoholic, in almost every country. Their original purpose was, especially in nomadic populations, to preserve beverages, and milk in particular.
They are part of food culture, but also of medicine, thanks to their numerous touted curative properties.
And here are a few of these ancestral beverages:
- Sour and slightly bubbly, “kefir” is without a doubt the most well known of these “living drinks”. Made from milk or fermented fruit juice, kefir originated in the Caucasus where it is still consumed regularly today.
- In India, people enjoy “lassi”, also created from fermented milk. It is the ideal beverage to drink with very spicy meals, but lassi is also consumed outside of mealtime. It can be plain, salty or sweet and perfumed: rose or mango scented… In some regions of India, its one of the main foods in their diet.
- In China and Russia, “kombutcha” is much appreciated. It is obtained thanks to the action of bacteria and yeasts in tea or the infusion of additional sugar, honey or grape juice.
- And in Mongolia? They drink arkhi (or “milk vodka”), which is traditionally made from the fermentation of mare’s milk. What if you don’t have a mare? No worries: the milk of a cow, donkey, sheep, yak, camel or reindeer will do the trick! Today, under Russian influence, arkhi is being replaced by industrial vodka. But many nomadic families continue to own and operate a still.
So that was a quick illustration of the essential role that bacteria and other microorganisms play in our everyday life. So when will we stop defaming them, and keeping them all in the same category as noxious substances? Thankfully our “micro-helpers” aren’t aware of any of the negative comments and won’t be going on strike anytime soon.