Fermented foods are currently a big trend not only in grocery stores and home kitchens – but also in food system research. Fermentation may offer solutions to large-scale societal challenges, such as modifying the nutritional content of new plant protein sources and tackling malnutrition in developing countries.
Fermented foods are currently a big trend. Fermentation in food processing generally refers to the process in which bacteria, yeasts or molds are involved. It is something that a home chef can easily try in their kitchens. Consumers are increasingly interested in fermented foods as they are promoted as gut-friendly and because of this, their popularity and availability in stores is increasing accordingly. Trendy products like kombucha, water kefir and kimchi are considered as health foods with beneficial lactic acid bacteria. Even the good old sauerkraut has gained a resurgence in popularity.
Though a current trend, fermentation is an old method used primarily to preserve food. For thousands of years, people around the world have harnessed microbes to extend the shelf life of food and to modify its taste. However, for today’s population the health benefits of fermented food are more attractive than the longer storage potential.
Fermentation can have considerable effects on the aroma, texture, nutritional value, digestibility and shelf life of food products. The process can improve the vitamin content of food and absorption of nutrients, such as minerals. In addition, fermented foods contain many beneficial and living lactic acid bacteria, which are carried to the intestine, thus feeding and complementing the gut microbiota.
Sustainable food processing
Fermentation is not only a trend in grocery stores and home kitchens, but also in food system research. As researchers we are interested in fermentation because we see it as one of the sustainable processing technologies that can modify the nutrient content of food to a more easily utilisable form for humans.
Through fermentation we are looking for solutions to modify the nutritional content of new plant protein sources, supporting a healthy diet for the gut, and tackling malnutrition in developing countries. The utilisation of fermentation technology can promote the transition towards circular economy by, for example, the sustainable processing of by-products from the agro-food chain.
Easily digestible and absorbable nutrients for the human body
As vegetarianism has gained popularity, the use of pulses as a protein source has also increased. Faba beans, for example, can be found in the kitchen cupboards of a growing number of households.
However, many pulses contain so-called antinutrients, which are compounds that reduce their nutritional value. Even if the protein content of the bean is high, it may not be optimally utilised by the body. Beans also cause stomach-ache for many, probably due to the presence of short-chain carbohydrates, oligosaccharides. Minerals and trace elements are not always easily absorbed by the body.
Through fermentation the concentration of antinutrients, such as protease inhibitors, oligosaccharides and phytates, may be reduced, consequently affecting the utilisation of these nutrients by human body.
Developing new microbial, plant-based products
In our current research within international SIMBA (Sustainable Innovation of Microbiome Applications in Food System) project, we aim to find strains of lactic acid bacteria that can act as degrading antinutrients in plant-based products and release nutrients to the human body.
Furthermore, our goal is to find microbial strains that can be used to add, for example, vitamins B12 and K2 to a plant-based protein source. Vitamin B12 is usually not naturally present in plant-based diets, thus supplementation is very important for vegetarians. The need for vitamin K is partly genetically determined. It is known that some microbes can produce vitamin K2, a highly absorbable form of vitamin K, which influences blood coagulation and is essential for bone health.
Within SIMBA project, we will develop microbial starters that will be used to develop new products based on pulses and cereals. With these products we will supplement the protein content of our plates in a more digestible and tasty forms.
SIMBA project is funded by EU Horizon 2020 programme. The project is operational for four years (11/2018-10/2022) and the total EU contribution is €10 m.