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Fermentation in food processing typically is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. A more restricted definition of fermentation is the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol. The science of fermentation is known as zymology.

Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desirable, and the process is used to produce alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and cider. Fermentation is also employed in preservation techniques to create lactic acid in sour foods such as saurkraut, dry sausages, kimchi and yogurt, or vinegar (acetic acid) for use in pickling foods.


Since fruits ferment naturally, fermentation precedes human history. Since ancient times, however, humans have been controlling the fermentation process. The earliest evidence of winemaking dates from eight thousand years ago, in Georgiamarker, in the Caucasus area. Seven-thousand-year-old jars containing the remains of wine have been excavated in the Zagros Mountainsmarker in Iran, which are now on display at the University of Pennsylvaniamarker. There is strong evidence that people were fermenting beverages in Babylonmarker circa 5000 BC, ancient Egypt circa 3150 BC, pre-Hispanic Mexico circa 2000 BC, and Sudanmarker circa 1500 BC. There is also evidence of leavened bread in ancient Egypt circa 1500 BC and of milk fermentation in Babylon circa 3000 BC.

Frenchmarker chemist Louis Pasteur was the first known zymologist, when in 1854 he connected yeast to fermentation. Pasteur originally defined fermentation as "respiration without air". Pasteur performed careful research and concluded;

Contributions to biochemistry

When studying the fermentation of sugar to alcohol by yeast, Louis 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. "Alcoholic fermentation is an act correlated with the life and organization of the yeast cells, not with the death or putrefaction of the cells," he wrote.

Nevertheless, it was known that yeast extracts ferment sugar even in the absence of living yeast cells. While studying this process in 1897, Eduard Buchner of Humboldt University of Berlinmarker, Germanymarker, found that sugar was fermented even when there were no living yeast cells in the mixture, by a yeast secretion that he termed zymase. In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research and discovery of "cell-free fermentation."

One year prior, in 1906, ethanol fermentation studies led to the early discovery of NAD+.


The primary benefit of fermentation is the conversion of sugars and other carbohydrates, e.g., converting juice into wine, grains into beer, carbohydrates into carbon dioxide to leaven bread, and sugars in vegetables into preservative organic acids.

Food fermentation has been said to serve five main purposes:
  • enrichment of the diet through development of a diversity of flavors, aromas, and textures in food substrates.
  • preservation of substantial amounts of food through lactic acid, alcohol, acetic acid and alkaline fermentations.
  • biological enrichment of food substrates with protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and vitamins.
  • elimination of antinutrients
  • a decrease in cooking times and fuel requirements.

Some fermentation products (e.g., fusel alcohol) are deleterious.

Stuck fermentation

A stuck fermentation is where a fermentation has stopped before completion; i.e., before the anticipated percentage of sugars has been converted by yeast into alcohol or carbohydrates into carbon dioxide.

Typically, a stuck fermentation may be caused by:1) insufficient or incomplete nutrients required to allow the yeast to complete fermentation; 2) low temperatures, or temperature changes which have caused the yeast to stop working early; or 3) a percentage of alcohol which has grown too high for the particular yeast chosen for the fermentation.

Corrections to stuck fermentations may include: 1) repitching a different yeast 2) incorporation of nutrients in conjunction with the repitched yeast; 3) restoration of accommodative temperatures for the given yeast.

Fermented foods by region

Fermented foods by type


cheonggukjang(청국장), doenjang(된장), miso (味噌(みそ)), natto(納豆(なっとう)), soy sauce, stinky tofu(臭豆腐), tempeh


amazake, beer, bread, choujiu, gamju(감주), injera, makgeolli, murri, ogi, sake, sikhye, sourdough, rice wine, Malt whisky, grain whisky, Vodka, batter


kimchi(김치), mixed pickle, sauerkraut


wine, vinegar, cider, brandy


mead, metheglin


cheese, kefir, kumis (mare milk), shubat (camel milk), cultured milk products such as quark, filmjölk, crème fraîche, smetana, skyr, yogurt


bagoong, faseekh (ﻓﺴﻳﺦ), fish sauce, Hákarl, heshiko, hidal khunda , jeotgal (젓갈), rakfisk, shrimp paste, surströmming


salami, pepperoni

Risks of consuming fermented foods

Alaskamarker has witnessed a steady increase of cases of botulism since 1985. Despite its small population, it has more cases of botulism than any other state in the United States of Americamarker. This is caused by the traditional Eskimo practice of allowing animal products such as whole fish, fish heads, walrus, sea lion and whale flippers, beaver tails, seal oil, birds, etc., 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 method, a grass-lined hole, as the botulinum bacteria thrive in the anaerobic conditions created by the air-tight enclosure in plastic.

See also


  1. Dirar, H., (1993), The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan: A Study in African Food and Nutrition, CAB International, UK
  2. Sugihara, T.F., (1985), Microbiology of Breadmaking, in "."Microbiology of Fermented Foods", edited by Wood, B.J.B., Elsevier Applied Science Publishers, UK
  3. Nobel Laureate Biography of Eduard Buchner at
  4. Steinkraus, K. H., Ed. (1995). Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods. New York, Marcel Dekker, Inc.
  • The 1811 Household Cyclopedia

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