by Karen Huh May 24, 2021 3 min read

At Joywell Foods, we’re surrounded by fermentation. Our team literally eats and drinks the fruits of their fermentation labor all day long! And chances are, you do too. But when we talk about fermentation, it can sound overly scientific.

But, the reality is, science and fermentation have been at the forefront of our food system since hunter-gatherers decided to trade in the nomad life for planting fields of produce. So, how has fermentation and food co-evolved over time? And what does fermentation in our food system look like in the present day?

Beer brewing tanks, another beloved product of fermentation in food. Image: Pixabay

Early Days of Fermentation: Bacteria for All!

To start,fermentation is “a chemical process by which carbohydrates, such as starch and glucose, are broken down anaerobically” (aka in an oxygen-less environment). In the present day, large-scale fermentation uses bacteria and other microbes to reproduce naturally occurring ingredients at huge quantities.

But, centuries beforeAntoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria, civilizations were using fermentation to preserve and enhance foods. Populations in7000 BC China brewed some of the earliest known beer-style drinks called kui from rice, honey, grapes, and hawthorns while peoples of theFertile Crescent in 6000 BC were found to each have at least one fermented food item per nation-state.

Through various happy accidents, people discovered fermentation and decided tocontinue using it to (a) extend the shelf life of their food, (b) create food that was less likely to make them sick, and (c) make foods more delicious.

Fast forward to the mid-1800s, French scientist, Louis Pasteur, was called in to investigate why some of the juice from a local vendor making alcoholic beverages from beet juice, were turning into vinegar rather than the preferred drink. Upon examination, Pasteur realized that the successfully fermented bottles had live organisms that played a huge role in creating alcoholic beverages. 

Through further studies, Pasteur also found that yeast convert sugars to alcohol while, contamination by certain bacteria, would turn the fermenting ethanol into acetic acid (aka the “sourness” found in the failed fermented beet juice). To combat bacterial contamination, Pasteur invented pasteurization - the process of heating the soon-to-be fermented substance to a temperature to kill off bacterial contaminants. 

Pickles and other produce are one great example of the delicious uses of fermentation in food. Image: Pixabay

Fermentation in the Present Day: From Covered Vases to Silos

As the years progressed, and our food system became more mechanized and widespread, people began to use fermentation at larger scales to produce ingredients and foods. Kefir, pickles, tempeh, and yogurt are all examples of fermentation applied to foods we all enjoy now. Not only are these types of fermented foods shown to be good for your gut, fermented foods also help to reduce food waste by elongating shelf life of otherwise short-lived food products.

These days, instead of the covered clay vases, modern fermentation uses pristine, stainless steel tanks along with microbes to produce the desired ingredients. Those ingredients are then purified and used in delicious treats. Large-scale fermentation isn’t only used to create beloved items like beer, but it’s also used to create and increase the production of life-saving substances likehuman insulin that was previously madeusing animals -- an inefficient and brutal process.

At Joywell Foods, we are continuing this tradition of innovation by using fermentation to scale up production of our natural sweeteners. Scaling our naturally occurring ingredients from fruits like the miracle berry and the katemfe fruit means we can make more of our healthy sweeteners with less inputs, allowing us to make our products available to more people overall. Let those wins keep fermenting!

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