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2.1 The diversity of fermented foods

Numerous fermented foods are consumed around the world. Each nation has its own types of fermented food, representing the staple diet and the raw ingredients available in that particular place. Although the products are well know to the individual, they may not be associated with fermentation. Indeed, it is likely that the methods of producing many of the worlds fermented foods are unknown and came about by chance. Some of the more obvious fermented fruit and vegetable products are the alcoholic beverages - beers and wines. However, several more fermented fruit and vegetable products arise from lactic acid fermentation and are extremely important in meeting the nutritional requirements of a large proportion of the worlds population. Table 2.1 contains examples of fermented fruit and vegetable products from around the world.

2.2 Organisms responsible for food fermentations

The most common groups of micro-organisms involved in food fermentations are:

2.2.1 Bacteria

Several bacterial families are present in foods, the majority of which are concerned with food spoilage. As a result, the important role of bacteria in the fermentation of foods is often overlooked. The most important bacteria in desirable food fermentations are the lactobacillaceae which have the ability to produce lactic acid from carbohydrates. Other important bacteria, especially in the fermentation of fruits and vegetables, are the acetic acid producing acetobacter species.

2.2.2 Yeasts

Yeasts and yeast-like fungi are widely distributed in nature. They are present in orchards and vineyards, in the air, the soil and in the intestinal tract of animals. Like bacteria and moulds, yeasts can have beneficial and non-beneficial effects in foods. The most beneficial yeasts in terms of desirable food fermentation are from the Saccharomyces family, especially S. cerevisiae. Yeasts are unicellular organisms that reproduce asexually by budding. In general, yeasts are larger than most bacteria. Yeasts play an important role in the food industry as they produce enzymes that favour desirable chemical reactions such as the leavening of bread and the production of alcohol and invert sugar.

Table 2.1 Fermented foods from around the world.

Name and region

Type of product

Indian sub-continent


Acar, Achar, Tandal achar, Garam nimboo achar

Pickled fruit and vegetables


Fermented dried vegetable

Lemon pickle, Lime pickle, Mango pickle


South East Asia


Asinan, Burong mangga, Dalok, Jeruk, Kiam-chai, Kiam-cheyi, Kong-chai, Naw-mai-dong, Pak-siam-dong, Paw-tsay, Phak-dong, Phonlami-dong, Sajur asin, Sambal tempo-jak, Santol, Si-sek-chai, Sunki, Tang-chai, Tempoyak, Vanilla,

Pickled fruit and vegetables

Bai-ming, Leppet-so, Miang

Fermented tea leaves

Nata de coco, Nata de pina

Fermented fruit juice

East Asia


Bossam-kimchi, Chonggak-kimchi, Dan moogi, Dongchimi, Kachdoo kigactuki, Kakduggi, Kimchi, Mootsanji, Muchung-kimchi, Oigee, Oiji, Oiso baegi, Tongbaechu-kimchi, Tongkimchi, Totkal kimchi,

Fermented in brine

Cha-ts’ai, Hiroshimana, Jangagee, Nara senkei, Narazuke, Nozawana, Nukamiso-zuke, Omizuke, Pow tsai, Red in snow, Seokbakji, Shiozuke, Szechwan cabbage, Tai-tan tsoi, Takana, Takuan, Tsa Tzai, Tsu, Umeboshi, Wasabi-zuke, Yen tsai

Pickled fruit and vegetables

Hot pepper sauce




Fruit vinegar


Hot pepper sauce


Lamoun makbouss, Mauoloh, Msir, Mslalla, Olive

Pickled fruit and vegetables

Oilseeds, Ogili, Ogiri, Hibiscus seed

Fermented fruit and vegetable seeds


Fermented fruits



Cucumber pickles, Dill pickles, Olives, Sauerkraut,

Pickled fruit and vegetables

Lupin seed, Oilseeds,

Pickled oilseed

Vanilla, Wines

Fermented fruit and vegetable

Middle East



Fermented fruit and vegetables

Lamoun makbouss, Mekhalel, Olives, Torshi, Tursu

Pickled fruit and vegetables


Fermented fruits

Europe and World


Mushrooms, Yeast


Olives, Sauerkohl, Sauerruben

Pickled fruit and vegetables

Grape vinegar, Wine vinegar


Wines, Citron

Fermented fruits

(Taken from G Campbell-Platt (1987))

2.2.3 Moulds

Moulds are also important organisms in the food industry, both as spoilers and preservers of foods. Certain moulds produce undesirable toxins and contribute to the spoilage of foods. The Aspergillus species are often responsible for undesirable changes in foods. These moulds are frequently found in foods and can tolerate high concentrations of salt and sugar. However, others impart characteristic flavours to foods and others produce enzymes, such as amylase for bread making. Moulds from the genus Penicillium are associated with the ripening and flavour of cheeses. Moulds are aerobic and therefore require oxygen for growth. They also have the greatest array of enzymes, and can colonise and grow on most types of food. Moulds do not play a significant role in the desirable fermentation of fruit and vegetable products.

When micro-organisms metabolise and grow they release by-products. In food fermentations the by-products play a beneficial role in preserving and changing the texture and flavour of the food substrate. For example, acetic acid is the by-product of the fermentations of some fruits. This acid not only affects the flavour of the final product, but more importantly has a preservative effect on the food. For food fermentations, micro-organisms are often classified according to these by-products. The fermentation of milk to yoghurt involves a specific group of bacteria called the lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus species). This is a general name attributed to those bacteria which produce lactic acid as they grow. Acidic foods are less susceptible to spoilage than neutral or alkaline foods and hence the acid helps to preserve the product. Fermentations also result in a change in texture. In the case of milk, the acid causes the precipitation of milk protein to a solid curd.

2.2.4 Enzymes

The changes that occur during fermentation of foods are the result of enzymic activity. Enzymes are complex proteins produced by living cells to carry out specific biochemical reactions. They are known as catalysts since their role is to initiate and control reactions, rather than being used in a reaction. Because they are proteinaceous in nature, they are sensitive to fluctuations in temperature, pH, moisture content, ionic strength and concentrations of substrate and inhibitors. Each enzyme has requirements at which it will operate most efficiently. Extremes of temperature and pH will denature the protein and destroy enzyme activity. Because they are so sensitive, enzymic reactions can easily be controlled by slight adjustments to temperature, pH or other reaction conditions. In the food industry, enzymes have several roles - the liquefaction and saccharification of starch, the conversion of sugars and the modification of proteins. Microbial enzymes play a role in the fermentation of fruits and vegetables.

Nearly all food fermentations are the result of more than one micro-organism, either working together or in a sequence. For example, vinegar production is a joint effort between yeast and acetic acid forming bacteria. The yeast convert sugars to alcohol, which is the substrate required by the acetobacter to produce acetic acid. Bacteria from different species and the various micro-organisms - yeast and moulds -all have their own preferences for growing conditions, which are set within narrow limits. There are very few pure culture fermentations. An organism that initiates fermentation will grow there until it’s by-products inhibit further growth and activity. During this initial growth period, other organisms develop which are ready to take over when the conditions become intolerable for the former ones.

In general, growth will be initiated by bacteria, followed by yeasts and then moulds. There are definite reasons for this type of sequence. The smaller micro-organisms are the ones that multiply and take up nutrients from the surrounding area most rapidly. Bacteria are the smallest of micro-organisms, followed by yeasts and moulds. The smaller bacteria, such as Leuconostoc and Streptococcus grow and ferment more rapidly than their close relations and are therefore often the first species to colonise a substrate (Mountney and Gould, 1988).

Table 2.2 Micro-organisms commonly found in fermenting fruit and vegetables





Acetobacter genus

A. aceti
A. pasteurianus
A. peroxydans

Aerobic rods

aw > =0.9

Oxidise organic compounds (alcohol) to organic acids (acetic acid). Important in vinegar production.


Gram positive cocci

Acid tolerant
aw > =0.9


Streptococcus genus
S. faecalis
S. bovis
S. thermophilus



Homofermentative. Most common in dairy fermentations, but S. Faecalis is common in vegetable products. Tolerate salt and can grow in high pH media.

Leuconostoc genus
L. mesenteroides
L. dextranicum
L. paramesenteroides
L. oenos

Gram positive cocci


Heterofermentative. Produce lactic acid, plus acetic acid, ethanol and carbon dioxide from glucose. Small bacteria, therefore have an important role in initiating fermentations. L. oenos is often present in wine. It can utilise malic acid and other organic acids.

Pediococcus genus

P. cerevisiae
P. acidilactici
P. pentosaceus



Saprophytic organisms found in fermenting vegetables, mashes, beer and wort. Produce inactive lactic acid.


Gram positive rods. Non-motile

Acid tolerant
aw > =0.9

Metabolise sugars to lactic acid, acetic acid, ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Lactobacillus genus



The genus is split into two types – homo- and hetero-fermenters. Saprophytic organisms. Produce greater amounts of acid than the cocci

Lactobacillus spp.
L. delbrueckii
L. leichmannii
L. plantarum

L. lactis

L. acidophilus



Produce only lactic acid. L. plantarum important in fruit and vegetable fermentation. Tolerates high salt concentration.

L. brevis
L. fermentum
L. buchneri



Produce lactic acid (50%) plus acetic acid (25%), ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide (25%). L. brevis is the most common. Widely distributed in plants and animals. Partially reduces fructose to mannitol.



Tolerate acid, 40% sugar
aw > =0.85


S. pombe

Many aerobic, some anaerobes

pH 4-4.5
20-30 C

S. cerevisiae can shift its metabolism from a fermentative to an oxidative pathway, depending on oxygen availability. Most yeasts produce alcohol and carbon dioxide from sugars.

Debaromyces Zygosaccharomyces rouxii

Candida species
Geotrichum candidum

Tolerant of high salt concentrations
Tolerates high salt concentration and low aw

2.3 Desirable fermentation

It is essential with any fermentation to ensure that only the desired bacteria, yeasts or moulds start to multiply and grow on the substrate. This has the effect of suppressing other micro-organisms which may be either pathogenic and cause food poisoning or will generally spoil the fermentation process, resulting in an end-product which is neither expected or desired. An everyday example used to illustrate this point is the differences in spoilage between pasteurised and unpasteurised milk. Unpasteurised milk will spoil naturally to produce a sour tasting product which can be used in baking to improve the texture of certain breads. Pasteurised milk, however, spoils (non-desirable fermentation) to produce an unpleasant product which has to be disposed of. The reason for this difference is that pasteurisation (despite being a very important process to destroy pathogenic micro-organisms) changes the micro-organism environment and if pasteurised milk is kept unrefrigerated for some time, undesirable micro-organisms start to grow and multiply before the desirable ones. In the case of unpasteurised milk, the non-pathogenic lactic acid bacteria start to grow and multiply at a greater rate that any pathogenic bacteria. Not only do the larger numbers of lactic acid bacteria compete more successfully for the available nutrients, but as they grow they produce lactic acid which increases the acidity of the substrate and further suppresses the bacteria which cannot tolerate an acid environment.

Most food spoilage organisms cannot survive in either alcoholic or acidic environments. Therefore, the production of both these end products can prevent a food from spoilage and extend the shelf life. Alcoholic and acidic fermentations generally offer cost effective methods of preserving food for people in developing countries, where more sophisticated means of preservation are unaffordable and therefore not an option.

The principles of microbial action are identical both in the use of micro-organisms in food preservation, such as through desirable fermentations, and also as agents of destruction via food spoilage. The type of organisms present and the environmental conditions will determine the nature of the reaction and the ultimate products. By manipulating the external reaction conditions, microbial reactions can be controlled to produce desirable results. There are several means of altering the reaction environment to encourage the growth of desirable organisms. These are discussed below.

2.4 Manipulation of microbial growth and activity

There are six major factors that influence the growth and activity of micro-organisms in foods. These are moisture, oxygen concentration, temperature, nutrients, pH and inhibitors (Mountney and Gould, 1988). The food supply available to the micro-organisms depends on the composition of the food on which they grow. All micro-organisms differ in their ability to metabolise proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Obviously, by manipulating any of these six factors, the activity of micro-organisms within foods can be controlled.

2.4.1 Moisture

Water is essential for the growth and metabolism of all cells. If it is reduced or removed, cellular activity is decreased. For example, the removal of water from cells by drying or the change in state of water (from liquid to solid) affected by freezing, reduces the availability of water to cells (including microbial cells) for metabolic activity. The form in which water exists within the food is important as far as microbial activity is concerned. There are two types of water - free and bound. Bound water is present within the tissue and is vital to all the physiological processes within the cell. Free water exists in and around the tissues and can be removed from cells without seriously interfering with the vital processes. Free water is essential for the survival and activity of micro-organisms. Therefore, by removing free water, the level of microbial activity can be controlled. The amount of water available for micro-organisms is referred to as the water activity (aw). Pure water has a water activity of 1.0. Bacteria require more water than yeasts, which require more water than moulds to carry out their metabolic activities. Almost all microbial activity is inhibited below aw of 0.6. Most fungi are inhibited below aw of 0.7, most yeasts are inhibited below aw of 0.8 and most bacteria below aw 0.9. Naturally, there are exceptions to these guidelines and several species of micro-organism can exist outside the stated range. See table for further information on water activity and microbial action. The water activity of foods can be changed by altering the amount of free water available. There are several ways to achieve this – drying to remove water; freezing to change the state of water from liquid to solid; increasing or decreasing the concentration of solutes by adding salt or sugar or other hydrophylic compounds (salt and sugar are the two common additives used for food preservation). Addition of salt or sugar to a food will bind free water and so decrease the aw. Alternatively, decreasing the concentration will increase the amount of free water and in turn the aw. Manipulation of the aw in this manner can be used to encourage the growth of favourable micro-organisms and discourage the growth of spoilage ones.

Table 2.3 Water activity for microbial reactions






Highly perishable foods


Pseudomonas, Bacillus, Clostridium perfringens and some yeasts inhibited

Foods with 40% sucrose or 7% salt


Lower limit for bacterial growth. Salmonella, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Clostridium botulinum, Lactobacillus and some yeasts and fungi inhibited

Foods with 55% sucrose, 12% salt.

Intermediate-moisture foods (aw = 0.90-0.55)


Many yeasts inhibited

Foods with 65% sucrose, 15% salt


Lower limit for most enzyme activity and growth of most fungi. Staphylococcus aureus inhibited

Fruit syrups


Lower limit for halophilic bacteria

Fruit jams


Lower limit for growth of most xerophilic fungi



Maximum velocity of Maillard reactions



Lower limt for growth of osmophilic or xerophilic yeasts and fungi

Dried fruits (15-20% water)


Deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) becomes disordered (lower limit for life to continue)




Dried foods (aw=0-0.55)


Maximum oxidation velocity



Maximum heat resistance of bacterial spores


Taken from Fellows (1988).

2.4.2 Oxidation-Reduction potential

Oxygen is essential to carry out metabolic activities that support all forms of life. Free atmospheric oxygen is utilised by some groups of micro-organisms, while others are able to metabolise the oxygen which is bound to other compounds such as carbohydrates. This bound oxygen is in a reduced form.

Micro-organisms can be broadly classified into two groups - aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobes grow in the presence of atmospheric oxygen while anaerobes grow in the absence of atmospheric oxygen. In the middle of these two extremes are the facultative anaerobes which can adapt to the prevailing conditions and grow in either the absence or presence of atmospheric oxygen. Microaerophilic organisms grow in the presence of reduced amounts of atmospheric oxygen. Thus, controlling the availability of free oxygen is one means of controlling microbial activity within a food. In aerobic fermentations, the amount of oxygen present is one of the limiting factors. It determines the type and amount of biological product obtained, the amount of substrate consumed and the energy released from the reaction.

Moulds do not grow well in anaerobic conditions, therefore they are not important in terms of food spoilage or beneficial fermentation, in conditions of low oxygen availability.

2.4.3 Temperature

Temperature affects the growth and activity of all living cells. At high temperatures, organisms are destroyed, while at low temperatures, their rate of activity is decreased or suspended. Micro-organisms can be classified into three distinct categories according to their temperature preference (see table2.4).

Table 2.4 Classification of bacteria according to temperature requirements.

Temperature required for growth 0C

Type of bacteria




General sources of bacteria


0 to 5

15 to 20


Water and frozen foods


10 to 25

30 to 40

35 to 50

Pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria


25 to 45

50 to 55

70 to 90

Spore forming bacteria from soil and water

(Taken from Mountney and Gould, (1988).

2.4.4 Nutritional requirements

The majority of organisms are dependent on nutrients for both energy and growth. Organisms vary in their specificity towards different substrates and usually only colonise foods which contain the substrates they require. Sources of energy vary from simple sugars to complex carbohydrates and proteins. The energy requirements of micro-organisms are very high. Limiting the amount of substrate available can check their growth.

2.4.5 Hydrogen ion concentration (pH)

The pH of a substrate is a measure of the hydrogen ion concentration. A food with a pH of 4.6 or less is termed a high acid or acid food and will not permit the growth of bacterial spores. Foods with a pH above 4.6. are termed low acid and will not inhibit the growth of bacterial spores. By acidifying foods and achieving a final pH of less than 4.6, most foods are resistant to bacterial spoilage.

The optimum pH for most micro-organisms is near the neutral point (pH 7.0). Certain bacteria are acid tolerant and will survive at reduced pH levels. Notable acid-tolerant bacteria include the Lactobacillus and Streptococcus species, which play a role in the fermentation of dairy and vegetable products. Moulds and yeasts are usually acid tolerant and are therefore associated with spoilage of acidic foods.

Micro-organisms vary in their optimal pH requirements for growth. Most bacteria favour conditions with a near neutral pH (7). Yeasts can grow in a pH range of 4 to 4.5 and moulds can grow from pH 2 to 8.5, but favour an acid pH. The varied pH requirements of different groups of micro-organisms is used to good effect in fermented foods where successions of micro-organisms take over from each other as the pH of the environment changes. For instance, some groups of micro-organisms ferment sugars so that the pH becomes too low for the survival of those microbes. The acidophilic micro-organisms then take over and continue the reaction. The affinity for different pH can also be used to good effect to occlude spoilage organisms.

2.4.6 Inhibitors

Many chemical compounds can inhibit the growth and activity of micro-organisms. They do so by preventing metabolism, denaturation of the protein or by causing physical damage to the cell. The production of substrates as part of the metabolic reaction also acts to inhibit microbial action.

2.5 Controlled fermentation

Controlled fermentations are used to produce a range of fermented foods, including sauerkraut, pickles, olives, vinegar, dairy and other products. Controlled fermentation is a form of food preservation since it generally results in a reduction of acidity of the food, thus preventing the growth of spoilage micro-organisms. The two most common acids produced are lactic acid and acetic acid, although small amounts of other acids such as propionic, fumaric and malic acid are also formed during fermentation.

It is highly probable that the first controlled food fermentations came into existence through trial and error and a need to preserve foods for consumption later in the season. It is possible that the initial attempts at preservation involved the addition of salt or seawater. During the removal of the salt prior to consumption, the foods would pass through stages favourable to acid fermentation. Although the process worked, it is likely that the causative agents were unknown. Today, there are numerous examples of controlled fermentation for the preservation and processing of foods. However, only a few of these have been studied in any detail - these include sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, beer, wine and vinegar production. Although the general principles and processes for many of the fermented fruit and vegetable products are the same -relying mainly on lactic acid and acetic acid forming bacteria, yeasts and moulds, the reactions have not been quantified for each product. The reactions are usually very complex and involve a series of micro-organisms, either working together or in succession to achieve the final product.

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