Fermentation Was Probably the First Great Moment in Food Science

published Apr 13, 2015
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(Image credit: Library of Congress)

Science and food are natural buddies. Take the discovery of fire for example: it not only makes food super tasty, but cooked food is both safer, and easier to digest.

Thanks to advancements in food science, we consume food in a way that would’ve been unheard a mere century or so ago. And modern life is not only made easier by these discoveries, it’s made possible by them. So, over this week, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite breakthroughs in food’s history with you, showcasing how science has transformed the very way we eat — beginning with fermentation.

Fermentation: Food Science 5,000 Years Old

It’s no secret that fermentation plays a huge role in some of our favorite foods. It turns juice into glorious wine, grains into beer, and leavens the very bread we break. But at its simplest, fermentation is a form of preservation, creating the lactic acid found in foods like pickles, yogurt, and even pepperoni. And while our current interest in probiotics makes fermentation seem something of a modern marvel, this breakthrough has been a part our diet since the Neolithic age.

“The discovery of fermentation was made about 5,000 years ago with the development of making wine and beer, presumably in Iran and then Egypt. From there, it spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean region,” explains Guy Crosby, Ph.D., CFS, Science Editor, America’s Test Kitchen, and adjunct associate professor, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

Did Anyone Know What They Were Doing? Hi, Pasteur!

But as with canning, fermentation was applied to foodstuffs long before anyone understood the process behind it. During fermentation, carbohydrates are converted into alcohols and carbon dioxide, or preservative acids, using yeasts, bacteria, or some combination of the two. The first real scientific understanding of this biochemical process came from, wait for it… Louis Pasteur.

It’s important to realize that Pasteur’s breakthroughs during this time, both in preservation and in fermentation, were the result of his ongoing studies around wine, beer, and milk. Below are some of his illustrations in regards to that work.

(Image credit: Library of Congress)

“Pasteur was asked by the French Emperor, Louis Napoleon, in 1863 to study the ‘maladies’ of wine,” notes Crosby, because “Pasteur had shown earlier that bacteria cause milk to spoil, and that fermentation was initiated by living organisms (about the same time). Three years later he completed his initial studies and ultimately published his famous paper on those works, Etudes sur le vin, in 1875.” His work on preservation (food spoilage) and fermentation pretty much went hand in hand.

Fermentation & Wine

A better understanding of fermentation came in the late 19th century, when German chemist Eduard Buechner ground up yeast and extracted a “juice” from it, he found that sugar still fermented even without the presence of living yeast. It’s these catalysts, known as enzymes, that do all the work, says Crosby.

Buechner was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work, which by the way, permanently changed winemaking as yeast strains specific to wine were eventually developed. In fact, in 1880, both France and the United States established institutes to study the science of winemaking. The University of California at Berkeley hosted the first U.S. institute, which relocated to UC Davis in 1928.

Lactic Fermentation Is Your Gateway

If you are looking for a bit of home science, you can certainly make your own wine or beer, but lactic acid fermentation is probably the easiest to experiment with. Cabbages, garlic, turnips, and cauliflower are just some of the ingredients you can ferment. Lemons and berries will also work well.

Of course, you can also honor the history of fermentation simply by popping open a beer, pouring a glass of wine, or tearing into one of those yogurts that makes you poop.

(Image credit: Library of Congress)