The fermentation of staples serves as a major source of nourishment for large rural populations, and contributes significantly to food security by increasing the range of raw materials which can be used in the production of edible products. There is, however, a need to ensure that they are not displaced by economic and cultural change, and that the knowledge base of their production is not lost. Further, a better understanding of fermentation technologies is needed in order to improve the safety, yields and quality of fermented food products, while consumers need to be made more aware of the benefits of consuming fermented foods.
Vitamins, amino acids. Fermentation enhances the nutrient content of foods through the biosynthesis of vitamins, essential amino acids and proteins, by improving protein and fibre digestibility, by enhancing micronutrient bioavailability, and by degrading antinutritional factors. It also provides a source of calories when used in the conversion of substrates, unsuitable for human consumption, to human foods. Fermentation processes enhance food safety by reducing toxic compounds such as aflatoxins and cyanogens, and producing antimicrobial factors such lactic acid, bacteriocins, carbon dioxide, hydrogen peroxide and ethanol which facilitate inhibition or elimination of food-borne pathogens. Therapeutic properties of fermented foods have also been reported.
In addition to its nutritive, safety and preservative effects, fermentation enriches the diet through production of a diversity of flavours, textures and aromas. It improves the shelf-life of foods while reducing energy consumption required for their preparation. The production of fermented foods is also important in adding value to agricultural raw materials, thus providing income and generating employment.
Improvements in process control through the development of more appropriate bioreactors, particularly those suitable for solid substrate fermentations, could improve the quality and quantity of fermented foods available in developing countries. The selection and development of more productive microbial strains, and the control and manipulation of culture conditions could also increase the efficiency of fermentation processes.
Documenting traditional knowledge. Recognising the need for greater consolidation and documentation of information relevant to fermentation processing - and the danger of losing "indigenous knowledge" as technologies evolve and families move away from traditional food preservation practices - the FAO Agro-Industries and Post-Harvest Management Service (AGSI) is preparing several publications on food fermentation. The first in the series, Fermented fruits and vegetables: a global perspective is currently in press. Others, on fermented cereals, grain legumes, seeds and nuts will appear shortly.
To facilitate exchange of knowledge and ideas acquired on the subject, AGSI is sponsoring, in conjunction with the Biotechnology and International Divisions of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a symposium on "Small Scale Food Fermentations in Developing Countries" at the 1999 annual IFT meeting in Chicago, USA. The symposium will review small-scale fermentation technologies as practised and the scope for their improvement; the impact of fermentation on food safety in developing countries; basic requirements for the transfer of fermentation technologies in developing countries; and the requirements for greater commercialization of a fermented products. The symposium will provide a forum for discussion of critical issues relevant to upgrading/improving small scale food fermentations.
For further information, contact: Rosa.Rolle@fao.org
Published December 1998